Venice Council member criticizes Oct. 20, 2015 vote during Convocation of Governments
Since 2005, when the Sarasota County School Board began hosting the other elected local government leaders in Sarasota County for an annual Convocation of Governments, the unwritten agenda has called for collegiality and collaboration.
In 2014, for example, the board members united behind a proposal for a new North Port Library on the campus of the school district’s proposed technical college in that city.
During the eighth Convocation, held on Jan. 15 at Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota, however, a Venice City Council member’s remarks veered from the usual path, prompting School Board Chair Shirley Brown to say, “In all due respect, we can all have our [personal] opinions … [but] … I think we have to be very careful about publicly second-guessing what another board has said.”
The discussion was focused on a longstanding interlocal agreement between the School Board and the Sarasota County Commission regarding public access to school district recreational facilities (see the related story in this issue). At one point, Venice Councilman Fred Fraize interjected, “I think the biggest concern in this room is funding.” He added, “I think that the people that are making the decision about the school impact fees should revisit that, based on what we are talking about today. [The impact fees] are not at a fair and equitable level. They need to be raised.”
Fraize had voiced a similar concern on Nov. 18, 2015, after his board heard a presentation by Sarasota County Schools’ Planning Director Kathie Ebaugh regarding an enrollment growth study the School Board commissioned last year.
During the Jan. 15 Convocation, County Commissioner Christine Robinson was the first to respond to Fraize: “I think that the key component to what you just addressed [is the current school year enrollment data].” She asked Fraize what he had found in reviewing those numbers.
“I did not study them,” Fraize replied.
“Really take a look at that [data],” Robinson said, adding that the district’s projections “aren’t being met.”
As of Dec. 18, 2015, district data show, 163 fewer students were enrolled in the elementary schools than staff had projected before the start of the 2015-16 school year. The staff estimate was for 15,831 students; the actual figure as of Dec. 18 was 15,668. For middle schools, as of the same date, enrollment was 83 fewer than expected (5,822 compared to 5,905). For the high schools, the projection called for 10,665 students; 10,658 were enrolled on Dec. 18, 2015.
In regard to the district’s charter schools, the figures show a projection of 6,640 students for the current school year, with enrollment at 6,294, or 346 fewer students, on Dec. 18, 2015.
Furthermore, Robinson pointed out to Fraize, if the School Board collected impact fees for new facilities and did not spend that money within a certain period of time, the board would have to return the funds to the people who paid it. (The fees are assessed on buyers of new homes.)
Still, Robinson continued, “I encourage the continued discussion about [the fees].”
Following a five-year moratorium on imposing impact fees because of the Great Recession, the School Board voted 3-2 on Oct. 20, 2015 to ask the County Commission to hold a public hearing on implementing fees that would reflect 25.9 percent of the maximum, legally justified amounts for single-family and multi-family homes, as well as mobile homes, indicated by the study it hired Tampa-based Tindale Oliver to conduct last year.
That hearing is set for Jan. 26. In the meantime, the moratorium ended on Dec. 14, so the 2004 fees the School Board set — and the County Commission approved — have been in effect.
“I did not plan on [the School Board] charging the full amount [of the legally defensible new fees] at this moment,” Fraize told Robinson on Jan. 15. He felt that the 50-percent level was appropriate, he added, as that is what Superintendent Lori White recommended to the board prior to its October 2015 vote.
“I was in favor of coming back slowly with an impact fee,” School Board member Jane Goodwin said. The board can change that level in a couple of years, she pointed out, without having to authorize a new study, “if we see things changing drastically.”
Goodwin continued, “We all know that people are still struggling economically. Who pays that impact fee? The people who buy a home.”
The board can slowly build up a new fund with impact fee revenue, she added, so it will be prepared to buy land and construct new schools.
“I just find this conversation very interesting,” School Board member Frank Kovach said, “and I’m just curious if, in the future, we’re going to start discussing Venice City [Council] decisions having to do with Venice, or just concentrate on the School Board impact fees.”
At that point, Brown told the group, “The School Board had rather extensive discussions on the … impact fees. [The vote] wasn’t unanimous, but we … came to a conclusion and passed the impact fees.”
She pointed out, “I agree with what Mr. Kovach said. It … puts us at a disadvantage, because I think we all need to respect each other’s positions here.”
Further, Brown told Fraize, “I understand that something that happened at one of your commission meetings caused great consternation for one of our employees, who, I believe, was mistakenly berated at one of our School Board meetings.”
Brown added that Planning Director Ebaugh’s ethics at that Venice Council meeting “were called into question.” She said, “I’d like to apologize to her for that.”
During the Dec. 8, 2015 County Commission discussion about the request for the public hearing on new impact fees, Commissioner Robinson told her colleagues she had watched the Nov. 18, 2015, Venice Council meeting, and she felt Ebaugh had implied — in response to questioning from the Council — that the level of the fees was up to the County Commission.
Also on Dec. 8, during a regular School Board meeting, developer Pat Neal alluded to Ebaugh’s statement at the Venice Council’s Nov. 18 session, telling the School Board she appeared to be siding with White in the recommendation for setting the fees at the 50-percent level of the legally defensible maximum supported by the Tindale Oliver study.
Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe told The Sarasota News Leader in a Dec. 9, 2015 interview that he and Ebaugh had discussed the remarks she made and that they had been misinterpreted. Lempe added that she was referring to the fact that, by law, the County Commission must set the fees, even though the School Board votes on the amount.
Ebaugh was on vacation at that time and could not be reached for comment, district spokesman Scott Ferguson told the News Leader.
After its vote on the impact fees, Brown pointed out during the Convocation, the School Board did formally request the County Commission to hold a public hearing on setting the fees.
“I would hope that the County Commission understands that this is what we want and that they don’t try to second-guess us,” Brown added.
Finally, Brown told everyone in the room, “I’d like to move on from that.”