The case for renewing the extra Pinellas schools tax
Beth Rawlins, a political consultant who chairs the Citizens for Pinellas Schools political action committee, which has led the charge for the property tax referendum, offered her arguments for renewing the tax in remarks to the school board yesterday. Here is her statement in full:
My name is Beth Rawlins and I am Chair of Citizens for Pinellas Schools.
In 2004 I came before you and asked you to put the idea of a locally funded school tax before the voters. I asked you to give the people of Pinellas County the opportunity to fund programs they supported.
At that meeting we talked about cuts in state funding, lost teaching assistants and curriculum specialists. We talked about our inability to offer salaries competitive with surrounding districts in order to recruit and retain the very best teachers for our classrooms.
As hopeful as I was about the prospects referendum dollars would bring, it was a very bleak conversation.
Then in 2007, I came before you to ask that you allow the voters to renew our local efforts. That presentation was filled with good news. Property values were high and funding wasn’t as dire as it had been. And the first years of the referendum were a resounding success.
A 30 station computer lab with installed in every high school, we had purchased thousands and thousands of library books, funded choral and orchestra programs, bought band uniforms and even paid for instrument rental for students in need. A new art mobile was making the rounds of our elementary schools and art supplies had been purchased for every grade – Kindergarten through 12th. What’s more, $52 million dollars in teacher compensation had been provided by referendum dollars as a special line item on individual paychecks.
Today I stand before you to again ask you to place renewal on the ballot. I wish I could say that the news is all good but it’s not. Falling property values and limited state revenue have again placed a strain on our ability to adequately fund public schools.
In 2008 the average home in Pinellas was appraised at over $243,830, today that value has fallen to just $146,545. With school funding tied to ad valorem taxes, that means that we just aren’t generating the revenue that we were in better times.
It also means that the referendum half mill doesn’t raise as much as it did in years past and that each homeowner’s commitment is smaller as well. With a homestead exemption of $25,000, our half mill applied to the average home in Pinellas results in $60.77 a year, or just over $5 a month.
But our half mill still makes a real difference to our kids.
In the last 4 years, referendum dollars have produced measurable results. All 18 high schools have art computer labs, enrollment in our strings program has doubled, 527 smart boards have been purchased and are used everyday to increase student participation in our classroom.
And we’ve really tackled remedial reading through the Pinellas Vocabulary Project and Leveled Literacy Intervention programs. 552 teachers have achieved the Reading Endorsement certification through support services offered by referendum dollars.
We have an amazing success story to tell. The collection and administration of these local funds has been flawless. The District and this Board have worked diligently to be a good steward of the people’s trust. The Citizens Oversight Committee (affectionately known as IC-ROC) has kept a watchful eye on spending and reported back regularly, providing transparency and accountability to the taxpayers. The outpouring of community support has been overwhelming this time around. PCTA and individual teachers, SEIU/the Florida Public Services Union and individual members of the Board, the Education Foundation, IC-ROC and the Realtors have all called to say “How can I help?”
Our original motivation for additional local school funding is as valid today as it was when I originally stood before you 8 years ago.
Our local businesses need an educated workforce and skilled labor to be competitive and a great school system encourages companies to relocate here because they can recruit qualified managers and fill upper level positions. That provides jobs and the availability of jobs lowers the crime rate and lessens the drain on social services. Mostly, a strong quality school system offers the next generation the gift of opportunity – the opportunity to be anything they want to be.
Please accept my request to once again place renewal of these local funds before the voters. The people of Pinellas County have demonstrated their commitment to our public schools and the district has been an admirable steward of that public trust but our children are the real winners here. We have much good work still to do, please allow the voters of Pinellas County to stand up again and do our part. Our kids deserve nothing less.