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Pasco County School Board asks voters to extend tax option

LAND O'LAKES — The School Board is asking voters for permission to keep a property tax worth about $5.5 million in play for the next two years.

The extra 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value can go toward any operating needs — this year it's paying for 105 teaching spots — and district leaders say it's critical to balancing the budget.

But you won't hear them hyping the Nov. 2 referendum anything like the way they promoted the Penny for Pasco back in 2004.

Rather, the campaign, if you can call it that, is decidedly low-key. There are no printed materials, no speakers bureau, no signs or ads.

School Board members and superintendent Heather Fiorentino are relying on word of mouth to generate support for the initiative, speaking to Rotary Clubs and PTAs when invited. They don't want to run afoul of a new state law barring government entities from using public money for political ads on ballot measures.

"I am working with other people's money," board vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. "I feel like we have to spend it wisely."

To cope with dwindling property values and shrinking tax revenue, the Legislature allowed local school boards to impose the tax this year with a supermajority vote. But the districts must get voters' permission if they want to continue the tax for the next two years.

The Palm Beach County School District, promoting a similar measure, has run into criticism for taking a more active role in its referendum campaign. That district has, among other things, asked school principals to make recorded phone calls to go to the homes of all their families.

Pasco leaders do not want to go there.

They are interested in getting approval to continue the tax, though.

They stress that a vote for the measure simply allows the School Board to consider keeping the tax in each of the next two years. A no vote forbids the School Board from continuing the tax.

"All you are doing is asking them to allow future boards to discuss and vote on it," Fiorentino told the School Board as it decided whether to put the item before voters. "It is not an automatic (renewal) for the next two years."

The United School Employees of Pasco urged the board to adopt the tax as a way to avoid layoffs. Since then, the USEP has prepared talking points for its members to share with their families and friends.

"Our organization is recommending to our membership that they vote in favor of the referendum," president Lynne Webb said.

But the USEP has not gone all out for the question. Webb said the union's political arm is involved with other issues, including class size and School Board races, and it has no money for a push on the referendum.

The main discussion on the tax came in July when the board adopted it for this year and voted to place the referendum on the general election ballot. Board members said they were reluctant to raise the tax rate during the economic downturn, including high unemployment and foreclosure rates.

"It tears me apart. There are no good options," chairman Allen Altman said at the time, noting that many residents can ill afford added taxes. "But I have made the decision as much as it grates me to support the quarter-mill because it is the right thing to do."

He mentioned that declining property values made the increased rate less onerous for many homeowners, as their actual tax bill would not rise much. He remained hopeful that the extra revenue would help prevent layoffs or major cuts to academic programs.

"This is absolutely necessary from my perspective," said retiring board member Frank Parker.

It's also a good move to let the public vote on the tax, Hurley said.

"People get angriest when they don't feel they have a say in matters," she said. "This way, the people will speak."

Only board member Kathryn Starkey, who resigned to run for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, opposed increasing the tax and putting the referendum to voters. She has repeatedly said the time is wrong to ask taxpayers to give more.

"We have to live within our means," Starkey said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

.Fast facts

The ballot question:

REFERENDUM REGARDING SCHOOL BOARD'S CONTINUED AUTHORITY TO LEVY 0.25 MILLS FOR CRITICAL OPERATING NEEDS

Shall the School Board have the authority by an annual super majority vote at a public board meeting to continue to levy 0.25 mills for critical operating needs pursuant to s. 1011.71(3)(b), Florida Statutes for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 fiscal years?

_____ YES = FOR giving the School Board such continued authority.

_____ NO = AGAINST giving the School Board such continued authority.

Pasco County School Board asks voters to extend tax option 10/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 1:12pm]

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