Parents seek special election to keep Brevard County schools from closing

$800,000 cost should be covered by schools' savings accounts, many say

VIERA, Fla. - As Brevard School Board members consider closing four schools and cutting $30 million, parents are lobbying officials to dip into the district's savings accounts to help pay for a special election in November to raise school taxes and stave off cuts.

A rally and march to school district offices is planned for Thursday evening. Scheduled two hours before a public forum starts at 6:30 p.m., parents hope the demonstration will help make their views heard.

"We want to show the community is coming together," parent Christine McClure told Local 6 News partner Florida Today. "We really want to show support for all our schools and our students, and that's really the focus of the march."

Elected officials are not expected to attend, however. Not wanting to "change the focus" of the forum — which will discuss the details of proposed boundary changes if schools are closed — Board Chair Barbara Murray said they were advised to skip it.

"This meeting is not to discuss school closures," she said. "The meeting is to educate parents and to make them aware of the boundary changes related to the potential school closures."

District staff will use input from the forum in developing their final recommendations to close Gardendale, Sea Park and South Lake elementary schools and Clearlake Middle School. If the school board decides on Jan. 22 to close the schools, the vote will simultaneously enact new boundary lines for next school year.

McClure expressed disappointment that officials will not be present — but also a resolve to continue building support.

A parent group that she's a part of, Save Brevard Public Schools, wants to send a new tax proposal to the voters in November: A quarter-cent sales tax and an extension of a quarter mill property tax set to expire in June. That would raise an estimated $24 million a year, less than the $30 million in proposed cuts.

So far, around 1,000 people have signed an online petition asking school board members to dip into a $19.9 million contingency fund to pay for a special election, an estimated $800,000 cost.

The fund is similar to an emergency savings. Since officials first started stashing money away in 1997, it's only been dipped into twice — following the storms in 2004 — to help with cash-flow issues until insurance and FEMA money came in.

"One bad storm could wipe out the contingency," said Judy Preston, Brevard's associate superintendent of finance.

The amount in reserve is dictated by school board policy, which requires it stay above 3 percent of general revenue. It's currently close to 4.2 percent — a percentage that has grown in recent years. While the dollar amounts have stayed the same during the last four years, the district's revenue has decreased.

"To me, it qualifies as the time to use those contingency funds," parent Michelle Speisman said. "We're not recommending they dip below the 3 percent, but we are recommending that they could use some of those funds and not affect their credit rating."

Group members also believe there's enough money to bridge a funding gap — until a special election can be held — by using a $50 million capital fund balance, which is similar to a savings account for facility needs.

Preston said that the fund is already being spent down, however, and is expected to end this school year with a balance of $34 million.

"You can only go about two more years of spending like that, and the money will be gone," she said. "We're already deferring an awful lot of capital projects. We've drawn the line in the sand."

With much public discussion about a special election, the school board may take a position on it at the Jan. 22 school board meeting, according to School Board Member Amy Kneessy.

She opposes such an effort, and would rather see a tax measure put on the 2014 general election ballot — at no extra cost to the district.

"I don't see where we have $800,000 to put this on a special ballot for this fall. ... This is an issue for the 2014 ballot," Kneessy said, adding: "If they want to raise the money to go forward with this, that's a different question."

School district leaders have cautioned board members against a special election. How would they justify it— and its expense — if the vote failed?

"About 139,000 people in this community said no" to the half-cent sales tax, spokeswoman Michelle Irwin said. "So we have to be very careful. They must have been informed enough to know they wanted to vote against it."

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