Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Politics

Pinellas school tax wins renewed for third time

Pinellas voters overwhelmingly decided to continue a nearly $30 million-per-year property tax that helps pay for teacher salaries, arts programs and technology.

"We could not be more grateful," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

The referendum question was placed in an awkward spot on the ballot, just below 11 proposed state Constitutional amendments, many of them wordy and controversial.

But Pinellas voters found the referendum question anyway and voted 63 to 37 percent to continue the tax, which was first approved in 2004 and renewed in 2008. It has raised about $235 million since collections began in 2005.

"Even during difficult times this community steps forward and supports education," Pinellas Schools superintendent Mike Grego said Tuesday evening.

"I'm so excited about that. I was confident that the voters were going to support it," said Janet Clark, who was re-elected to the School Board on Tuesday.

The referendum did not inspire organized opposition, but advocates worried about its chances from the moment the Pinellas County ballot was unveiled. A grass roots coalition arose to promote it, but there wasn't a budget for a splashy campaign.

The biggest fear, however, was over its placement: In many parts of the county, it was the very last item on a four-page ballot.

The ballot placement did cause problems for some. Meg Baker of Palm Harbor said she strongly opposed the constitutional amendments, and even urged family members to vote against them. But after she voted, she realized she and family members had unwittingly voted against the school referendum also.

"That's when I knew for sure that we had all voted no by mistake," she said Tuesday.

There were other factors working against the referendum besides confusion. The proposal not only asked voters to tax themselves, but asked them to do so during uncertain economic times.

Grego said the Pinellas referendum has helped Pinellas maintain strong performing arts programs in its schools. Some other school districts have had to cut theirs.

If the referendum had failed, "we would have had to make some of those cuts and dismantle some of those" arts programs, he said.

The rate of the special property 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 for the school measure.

The tax will raise roughly $30 million per year, with about 80 percent of it going to teachers' salaries, roughly $3,000 per year per teacher. The remainder will go toward art, music and reading programs; libraries; and equipment such as iPads, laptops and Smart Boards.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected]

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