Given a bad economy, surly voters and "turmoil" in the school district, the head of the Pinellas teachers union said Thursday she's worried about next year's vote on a $30 million property tax referendum that would continue to boost teacher salaries and bring in vital dollars for arts, music and technology.
"I'm very concerned," union president Kim Black told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.
Black noted an antitax mood, then added: "When all of this turmoil is happening — whether it's the budget, negotiations (between the district and the union), the issues with the superintendent — all of those things create a lack of confidence, I believe, in the public school system."
At issue is the four-year tax hike Pinellas voters okayed in 2004 and renewed in 2008, both times by huge margins.
The hike gives the district another 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value. Last year, that came to $33.7 million. Eighty percent of it went to teacher salaries, boosting them by more than $3,000.
The School Board has not discussed a date for the next referendum. But it's likely to either be on next year's general election ballot, Nov. 6, or on the presidential primary ballot, which hasn't been scheduled but is required by law to be between the first Tuesday in January and the first Tuesday in March.
"I'm also concerned," board chairwoman Carol Cook said when told of Black's remarks.
But Cook said it was personal financial woes more than unflattering headlines about the district that she feared would affect voters. "With the economy, people are looking at, 'How can I save money?' " she said.
On the flip side, Cook noted the referendum specifically dictates where the money will go. The spending is also overseen by an independent citizens committee that reviews quarterly expenditures and puts together an annual report.
"We have held true to what we are going to spend the money on," she said. "And the arts are very important for Pinellas County. They're value. For that reason, I still think we have a fighting chance."
The board is scheduled to get an update about the referendum money Tuesday.
Rejection of the referendum would amount to a big pay cut for Pinellas teachers, at a particularly bad time.
According to the union, the average teacher (15 years experience, with a master's degree) will lose about $2,800 in salary next year given a legislative mandate that they begin contributing to their pensions — and if the district follows through on plans for higher health insurance costs and three days of unpaid leave.
It's not clear how much public perception about the tax hike has changed since the last vote. But the district has been in a rough stretch. Beyond six straight years of budget cuts, and all the related complications, superintendent Julie Janssen has become a lightning rod for criticism from parents, teachers and board members.
In the editorial board interview, Black raised questions about a number of recent Janssen actions. Among them: a decision to create a new chief communications officer position, and another to pursue a replacement for a retiring regional superintendent.
Black also said the district should scrap a teacher training partnership with the University of Florida's Lastinger Center that will cost it another $1.6 million next year. The board is scheduled to vote on that issue, a priority for Janssen, on Tuesday.
"Sure porterhouse is on sale, but so is the ground chuck," she said, referring to the Lastinger program. "And if you can only afford the ground chuck, why go for the porterhouse?"
When asked, Black stopped short of saying the district needed to replace Janssen.
"I can't say that," she said. "That job, everyone blames every single thing on that one person."
Black added the union has a good working relationship with Janssen: "I can honestly say when I talk to the other union presidents across the state, I'd much rather have a superintendent who takes my calls and listens to my concerns … than one who says, 'No, thank you, I'll get back to you next week."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.