Thursday, April 19, 2018
Education

Supporters fear Pinellas school tax might fail due to voter fatigue

ST. PETERSBURG — Interviewed after casting his ballot last week, Gladstone Hunter couldn't recall seeing the question about renewing a special school district tax.

Nor did Lori Stelma, who was dropping off her absentee ballot at the downtown St. Petersburg supervisor of elections' office.

On reflection, memories jogged, both voters said yes, they were quite certain they voted in favor of the measure, which supplements teacher salaries and funds classroom programs.

But their temporary fogginess on the issue illustrates the greatest concern of the measure's supporters: This year's ballot is so long and complicated, many fear voters will grow frustrated or confused and say no to the measure or simply skip voting on it.

And its placement on the ballot — at or near the bottom — is only compounding fears.

While Pinellas County residents have twice approved the special property tax by overwhelming numbers, supporters are taking nothing for granted.

"The concern has been for us on the board and members of our staff … where it is placed on the ballot," Pinellas County School Board member Janet Clark said.

While conducting her re-election campaign, Clark said, "I've saved a little bit of time so I can share with the voters to let them know where it is."

Voters must plow through 11 state constitutional amendments — most of them wordy — before getting to the referendum.

"The one thing we are worried about is voter fatigue and people not getting to the end of the ballot. That, honestly, is our biggest opponent on this issue," said Darden Rice, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the League of Women Voters.

A further concern is that several organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times, have urged a straight "no" vote on each of the 11 constitutional amendments.

Although the Times and others have recommended voting "yes" on the school tax, supporters fear that voters will lump it in with the previous 11 statewide issues.

Organizations such as the League of Women Voters and Pinellas County Council of Parent Teacher Associations are encouraging residents to vote the ballot from the bottom up, said Beth Rawlins, chairwoman of Citizens for Pinellas Schools, a political action committee campaigning for the measure.

Voters approved the special tax in 2004 and its renewal in 2008. If approved again, 80 percent of the $30 million raised annually would continue to support teachers' salaries, with each teacher receiving about $3,000 a year from the tax fund. The remainder would go toward art, music and reading programs; libraries; and equipment such as iPads, laptops and Smart Boards.

The special tax amounts to about $50 per year per $100,000 in assessed taxable value. This year, the average single-family home in Pinellas County was valued at $137,911. With a $25,000 homestead exemption, the average homeowner would pay $56.46 a year. Those with homes valued at $250,000 and with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $112.50 a year.

The tax has raised about $235 million since collections began in 2005. Rejecting the tax could be devastating, Clark said.

"I don't think the district is in any position to come up with that additional $3,000 for a teacher," she said.

Recently, the League of Women Voters has made more than a dozen presentations to promote the referendum.

"With all the grass roots presentations we have made, we have reached a little over 600 people," Rice said, adding that the group has also distributed more than 2,000 voter guides about School Board candidates and the referendum. "It's a great issue to talk about. People like the fact that it's local money that is dedicated to Pinellas County schools."

Arts venues, including the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Dalí Museum are all helping to promote it, as are chambers of commerce, Rawlins said.

"The amount of support we have seen by the community is much, much greater than we've seen before," said Rawlins, whose political action committee has taken its campaign to candidate forums, Rotary clubs, home­owners associations and other groups. She said the message also is being carried by donated digital billboards and mailings sent out last week.

Still, there's been less money to promote the issue this year.

"This time around, we can't afford TV," Rawlins said. "We're in a different kind of election cycle. This is a much more grass roots, community-supported campaign.

"The danger is this time around that there are so many bad ideas on the ballot, I'm afraid that this good idea will be swept away."

Not if Barbara Hartwell has anything to do with it. The St. Petersburg woman voted for the special tax last week, and had no trouble recalling her vote as she walked out of the supervisor of elections' office.

"I'm an ex-school teacher," she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.

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