Backers of Pinellas County schools tax referendum seek new parents' support

Supporters worry about budget cuts should voters fail to approve property assessment.
Pinellas County School Board Member Linda Lerner has rallied behind the special tax referendum since it was first approved in 2004. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Pinellas County School Board Member Linda Lerner has rallied behind the special tax referendum since it was first approved in 2004. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published July 16 2016
Updated July 17 2016

Beth Rawlins remembers the way art classes used to be in Pinellas County.

Often, teachers would have just 20 minutes with their students. There was no setup, no cleanup, no kids with paint-stained fingers creating their own masterpieces. The teachers only had time to lecture.

That changed in 2004, after a voter-approved property tax started bringing in an additional $33 million in annual revenue on average to the district. The money has been used to beef up art instruction, among other things.

The four-year tax, which costs homeowners about $50 a year per $100,000 in assessed, taxable value, will be up for its third renewal on November's general election ballot. The tax referendum maintained strong support throughout the economic downturn and tea party wave, capturing 70 percent of the vote in 2008. But Rawlins, who chairs Citizens for Pinellas Schools, a political committee advocating for the tax, worries the latest generation of parents may not be on board.

"Very few of them will have any context for what it was like to be in the school system before we began providing these funds," said Rawlins, a 53-year-old political consultant whose children are grown.

Inspired by a similar tax passed in Sarasota County, Rawlins began campaigning in 2003 to give local teachers a more competitive salary and provide funding for a more well-rounded curriculum.

She helped draw up a budget that set aside about 80 percent of the money to recruit and retain teachers and 20 percent left to update textbooks and technology, and preserve reading, music and programs.

"We have always sold this as being 'classroom based,' " Rawlins said. "It's local money. We raise it here. It stays right here and it goes into the classroom."

To reassure voters the money would be spent properly, Rawlins insisted that citizen oversight be a top priority. The Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee meets quarterly to pore over expenditures and publishes a detailed report every fall. Its members include representatives from the public and private sectors; the Pinellas Realtor Organization, the Florida PTA and the Pinellas Education Foundation are all represented.

Should voters decide against the tax, the school system would face a budget shortfall. Teachers, who received $3,417 in their paychecks from the tax this year, would lose that supplement, and the school district would be forced to dramatically scale back the enhancements to the curriculum.

School Board member Linda Lerner, who has rallied behind the tax since its inception, said the district would no doubt have to make cuts.

"If we don't have that money, it definitely will negatively impact the budget," she said.

The effect of a negative vote would carry far beyond the classroom, said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development and chairman of the referendum's oversight committee.

"You get a lower quality worker," he said. "They're not as well-rounded. They're not as able to work on their own and work in teams."

He added: "The high-paying jobs all demand those skills, and you don't really learn them by direct learning, you learn them by experience. That's where these programs come in."

Not everyone thinks the tax is a good idea.

Nancy Bostock, a former School Board member and county commissioner, voted against the measure when it first appeared on the ballot in 2004. She believes the school district should dip into its own billion-dollar purse to fund its needs.

"I think the School Board and the community has really backed itself into a corner because they're … relying on that money now," said Bostock, who says she doesn't support any optional tax. "You can't stop that kind of funding without major implications."

School Board member Carol Cook said the voter-approved tax has pushed the district forward. Cook noted how Pinellas schools were equipped with technology when the state switched to online testing.

"It's not so much where we were versus where we are now," she said. "It's where we were and where we would be now if we didn't have the referendum."

Ana Cabezas, a 39-year-old Seattle transplant who moved to the Disston Heights area in 2012, will vote on the tax for the first time this November. Even though she is happy with her two children at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, Cabezas said she believes Pinellas schools are "dangerously underfunded," and that she plans to vote "yes" on the referendum.

"I don't know what parent wouldn't want to invest in our local schools," she said. "I don't care what political affiliation we are."

Rawlins hopes voters will agree with Cabezas.

"I knew when we originally started this that the real danger was opening a Pandora's box that couldn't be sustained forever and ever," she said. "The truth is that if the voters decide that they do not want to reauthorize this, the school system will suffer, and that will rip my heart out."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

Advertisement