Half-cent sales tax still bringing tech upgrades, infrastructure to district

The half-cent sales tax approved by Washington County voters in 2018 to fund school district capital projects and sooth educational technology needs is still serving its intended purpose, according to school district records.

The ten-year surtax went into effect in January 2019 after garnering approval from 58 percent of voters in 2018.

Since then, the tax has generated slightly more than the projected $1 million a year, helping fund the purchase of more than 600 student computers, about 60 ClearTouch Interactive Boards (also known as a “smart board”), and a Focus Community App, as well as technology infrastructure upgrades to Florida Panhandle Technical College (FPTC), all in the 2019-2020 fiscal year alone.

Sales tax collections received for the 2020-21 fiscal year through May 2021 total nearly $1.1 million with two more months left in the fiscal year. Those funds have been used to purchase additional computers and smart boards for classroom instruction, as well as to fund completion of the renovation and technology upgrades at the FPTC Learning Resource Center, air conditioning projects, the districtÂ’s portion of the new bus barn, extension of the Kate M. Smith Elementary School parking lot, and purchase equipment for the Vernon High School culinary program.

The funds also mean the district was able to provide a computer for each student and expand the district’s broadband connectivity – both investments which school officials say paid off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of the sales tax funds, our district was able to meet the overall goal to have a one-to-one ratio for students to computers in the 2019-2020 school year,” said Superintendent of Schools Joe Taylor. “This, along with the ability in 2019-2020 to expand our broadband infrastructure to handle increased devices and data usage was instrumental in continuing educational services through these technological upgrades to students when schools closed in March 2020.”

“When school began in Fall 2020, the district was able to provide a choice,” he added. “Students could attend class on campus or participate in an online environment known as Individual Learning Environment (ILE).”

Students who chose the ILE option were able to check one of the laptops – which had been purchased through the half-cent sales tax revenue.

Teachers were able to provide a video lesson, stay in contact with students and parents, receive online assignments and other technology support as a result upgrades the district had made to technology equipment and infrastructure. The smart boards afforded teachers a more diverse way to present information, strengthening both collaborative learning and distance education.

“No one could have predicted the pandemic or the educational challenges it would bring,” said Taylor. “However, thanks to the voters of Washington County, when the pandemic came, the district had the equipment and infrastructure already in place to continue providing a quality education for all students.”

Taylor adds that during upcoming 2021-2022 academic year, each classroom in the district will have a smart board.