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Supporters urge renewal of school tax

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.

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 has raised about $235 million since its inception. 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.

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.

The school district can put out factual information about the referendum. The district has a website about it at referendum.pcsb.org.

Supporters say there are reasons to be hopeful. There has been no organized opposition to the tax. 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 cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Supporters urge renewal of school tax 10/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 4:30am]
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