After hovering in the background for months, a voter referendum to renew a $30 million tax increase for Pinellas schools came into sharp focus Tuesday.
The Pinellas School Board voted 7-0 to steer the referendum to the Nov. 6 ballot, a move that will begin to accelerate chatter around the biggest issue facing Pinellas schools this year.
"Even in grocery stores, as I'm going along, it's like, 'When is the renewal coming up?' " said board member Carol Cook. "These are community members … (whose) children are enjoying and appreciating … what this referendum has been able to give them."
Voters approved the property tax increase in 2004 and renewed it in 2008, both times by big margins. If it's not renewed again, collection will end on June 30, 2013.
In better economic times, the hike — 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value — raked in more than $30 million each year. But with declining property values, it's expected to bring in $28 million next year. Eighty percent goes to teacher salaries, boosting them by about $3,000 each and keeping them competitive with surrounding districts. The rest is divided among art, music, reading and technology programs.
All of it is watchdogged by a citizens committee that puts out an annual report detailing how the money was spent.
"We have an amazing success story to tell," said Beth Rawlins, who chairs a political action committee supporting the referendum. "The collection and administration of these local funds has been flawless."
Among the purchases: Computer labs in every high school. Thousands of library books. Art supplies for every grade.
Business leaders, real estate agents, the teachers union and other groups are mobilizing to support the referendum, which may face a tougher slog this year because of surly voters and a still-limping economy. But Rawlins said the referendum's design — specific, limited in duration and independently scrutinized — may satisfy those with concerns about government spending.
She said she recently used members of a tea party organization as an unofficial focus group.
"I actually got a positive response," she said. "When I explained … how it's structured and how it has to come back before voters, I didn't encounter any resistance."
Supporters could have asked the School Board to put the referendum on the August primary ballot, Rawlins said. But in the end they decided the referendum had a better shot with the bigger, more diverse group of voters expected in November.
Tuesday's vote sends the resolution to the Pinellas County Commission, which has a ministerial duty to pass it on to the Pinellas supervisor of elections, Rawlins said.
In the meantime, supporters will step up efforts to raise campaign money and begin addressing the issue in meetings with civic groups. Some will also begin drawing up plans for door-to-door efforts later this year.
"This money has meant so much to the Pinellas County school students," said board member Janet Clark. "As a glass half empty kind of girl, I'm really positive about this passing."
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.