Broward will seek voter approval for $800 million school bond issue

Broward’s school district will ask voters to approve an $800 million bond issue this fall — a referendum that will likely become a defining moment for the nation’s sixth-largest school system.

By unanimous vote, school board members on Tuesday began the voter referendum process by formally asking the state’s permission to put the issue on the November ballot. The state’s approval is expected to come quickly and easily.

It’s getting approval from county voters that will be the tricky part. The next six months will test Broward’s ability to community effectively and stay on-message — a task that historically has proven difficult for the district.

Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie is pitching the bond issue as an worthwhile investment — and one that pays dividends in a variety of ways.

“Everything that we do is linked to the quality of the schools in our community,” Runcie said. “Housing values, quality of life, the ability to attract businesses and families to our communities all rest on the quality of our schools, and our ability to invest and maintain them and provide our children with a world-class education.”

If the bond issue passes, Broward would receive a badly-needed infusion of cash for capital improvements and technology needs. Dozens of district schools are struggling with leaky roofs, for example, which creates mold risks.

In addition to its dollars-and-cents impact, a victory at the polls would be a huge symbolic statement from voters. It would signal public confidence in a school district that only a few years ago was overwhelmed by repeated corruption scandals.

Broward now has new leadership in place, and School Board member Rosalind Osgood said she is confident that public faith in the school district has been restored.

“Maybe I’m optimistic,” Osgood said. “We’ve gained a reputation of making tough decisions and doing what’s right by our children.”

State budget cuts in recent years are a key reason why Broward needs more money for school repairs. Prior to 2008, Broward collected $2 for every $1,000 in taxable value from homeowners for a fund that specifically pays for capital improvement projects.

The Legislature reduced the amount Broward could collect to $1.50 for every $1,000 of taxable value, a move that gave tax relief to homeowners but left the school district’s five-year improvement plan in shambles. Even if the bond issue is approved, homeowners would still be paying a lower tax rate than those pre-2008 levels.

But Broward’s budget crunch isn’t just the state’s fault. Under previous school boards and superintendents, the district squandered millions on projects that were either unnecessary or poorly planned out — or both. And it’s that woeful track record that represents the biggest hurdle for the bond issue referendum.

“Years of wasteful spending and wrong priorities have left a legacy of distrust,” local activist Mary Fertig told school board members. “None of us wants to see a scenario where more dollars are wasted, and yet none us wants to see children sit in classrooms under leaky roofs try to type on outdated computers with keys missing from the keyboard, and unable to run state-of-the-art curriculum.”

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