TARPON SPRINGS — Business leaders involved with a leading Pinellas County education fundraising group say they will aggressively campaign next year to renew a property tax to help public schools.
Bob McIntyre, CEO of DYTEK Corp., and Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Co. of St. Petersburg, said Wednesday that they are committed to raising money to support the renewal of a tax that generates roughly $30 million a year for the county's public schools.
"To lose that referendum would be catastrophic," Sher said.
The pair made the comments after a Pinellas County Education Foundation event. They said the campaign will be separate from the foundation because election rules prohibit nonprofit groups from political campaigning.
Speaking at a luncheon organized by the foundation, Pinellas County School District superintendent John Stewart pointed out that county voters overwhelmingly approved the half-mill tax — by 64 percent in 2004 and 70 percent in 2008.
This time, he warned, it could be tougher.
"Not a healthy environment to be asking for a renewal of a referendum," Stewart said.
The tax, which funds $3,000 toward every teacher's salary and has funded the expansion of the district's arts, reading and technology programs, expires June 30, 2013.
Without a renewal, supporters warn, schools will suffer.
"Though no one likes to pay taxes," Sher said, "it has been shown there's a direct connection from the money raised to good things in education. So we have to raise money to publicize that."
It's still very early.
Campaign organizers have not even decided whether to place the referendum on the Aug. 14, 2012, primary ballot or to attach it to the hefty Nov. 6, 2012, general election.
Beth Rawlins, chairperson of the political action committee supporting the campaign, said she hopes to reach a fundraising goal on par with years past, upward of $50,000.
"I'm still convinced this is something the people of Pinellas County support," she said.
Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said she expects members of her group will also play an active role in support of the measure as it has in the past.
"Our teachers are the best ones to tell the story about all the things this referendum does for our students."
In 2010 the money went toward things like the expansion of reading classrooms and reading texts, instruments and art supplies, whiteboards and online curriculum development, according to a 2010 report from the Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee, a seven-person group mandated by the ballot language to monitor how the tax dollars are spent.
McIntyre said the district's arts programs rely on that funding.
"As much as I'm concerned about the salaries for the teachers, which I think they absolutely deserve, I'm as concerned about the arts programs that would be lost without this," he said. "I wonder how many students are sitting in programs right now that if it wasn't for this referendum they wouldn't be sitting in those programs."