Saturday, December 16, 2017
Education

Renewal of Pinellas special school tax urged

In November, Pinellas County voters will be asked to renew a special property tax that supports teacher salaries and pays for arts and technology in public schools.

If the referendum fails, teachers could see pay cuts. Music and arts programs could be curtailed or shuttered. And a sizable hole — nearly $30 million a year — could be blown into the school district's $1.2 billion annual budget.

It's a possibility that School Board members and union leaders are reluctant even to contemplate. Asked at a public forum what the district would do if the referendum failed, board member Janet Clark called it a "terrible question." None of the nine candidates running for School Board in the August primary came out against the tax.

"It's impossible to replace," said superintendent John Stewart. "The support for the arts would fall into a tailspin and technology would take a serious blow."

Yet there hasn't been an aggressive campaign to promote it — and almost no recent discussions among board members about what could happen if voters turn it down. The tax, up for its third renewal, expires June 30, 2013.

Of the millions raised each year, 80 percent goes to teacher salaries — giving each teacher about $3,000 each year — and the rest supports art, music, reading and technology in schools.

"If it doesn't (pass,) it'll be a huge step back," said Jim Myers, chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, a business-led nonprofit organization. "The arts and so many of these programs … really hang in the balance with the results of the referendum."

• • •

Voters approved the tax in 2004 and 2008 with overwhelming support, passing it by 64 percent and 70 percent respectively. In some ways, those campaigns were easier, said Beth Rawlins, chairwoman of the political action committee supporting it.

In 2004, the idea was "new and novel," she said. In 2008, supporters could promote what the tax money had paid for — field trips to museums, art supplies, teacher training, band uniforms and laptops.

"There were a lot of things to point to — and there still are, exponentially more," Rawlins said. "Frankly, I'm fearful that people will take it for granted."

The tax, which has raised about $235 million since its inception, is folded each year into the district's budget. For a homeowner, it amounts to about $50 per year per $100,000 in assessed, taxable value.

This year, the average single-family home in Pinellas County had a value of $137,911. With a homestead exemption, the homeowner would pay $56.46 a year for the special tax. The total school bill, including the special tax, would be less than $1,000.

Board members are expected to approve the final budget Tuesday, with a slightly lower total tax rate than last year. Most of the district's total tax rate is set by the state.

Myers said he believes that people support the special tax when they learn what it does. The trick is to get that message out to voters.

The task is complicated somewhat because the school district, by law, isn't allowed to directly advocate for it. As a nonprofit organization, neither is the foundation.

Stewart said the school district can — and does — put out factual information about the referendum, explaining what it has paid for. The district has a website about it at referendum.pcsb.org.

"We can't just launch a full-scale campaign about it," Myers said.

For those that are allowed to campaign, it has been tough to raise money in a bad economy.

The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association has fewer dollars to devote to the cause this time, said executive director Marshall Ogletree.

"Our advocacy is pretty much internal at this point," he said.

Rawlins said last year that she hoped to raise as much money as in past campaigns, $50,000 or more. As of last week, Citizens for Pinellas Schools had brought in about $12,000, she said.

"The truth of the matter is, there's no sugar daddy, no super PAC, that's going to fund this thing," she said.

• • •

With limited resources, supporters of the referendum said most of their efforts will start next month, in the runup to the Nov. 6 general election, and will largely be a grass roots, word-of-mouth campaign.

The union plans to encourage their members to talk to neighbors. Union leaders also hope to buy some yard signs. While the foundation can't support the referendum, Myers said some of its leaders have made monetary contributions and are spreading the word through their contacts.

Rawlins said supporters already have met with dozens of organizations within the arts community as well as the chambers of commerce and Rotary Clubs. They also have started collecting endorsements.

The political action committee also has received a few grants, one of which will pay for billboards. Bright House Networks also has run public service announcements about the referendum. The commercial spots didn't advocate for the tax, but explained what it has paid for, Rawlins said.

Supporters say there are reasons to be hopeful. There has been no organized opposition to the tax. Voter turnout shouldn't be a problem in a presidential election year. And recent public surveys have shown strong support for the referendum.

But, "We take nothing for granted," Rawlins said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

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