Facing a 10 percent drop in property tax revenue this year, the Pinellas School Board needs to keep all options on the table to deal with the crisis. One of those is a small increase in the tax rate, which will come up for its first vote Tuesday. The board should say yes even as it continues to look for more spending cuts.
Voting yes doesn't mean taxes will rise for certain. It keeps that avenue open as the district continues calculating this summer how to operate — and what choices to make — in a severely restricted fiscal environment. Last year, about $600 million in property tax revenue came to the district. This year, that number is expected to fall to $540 million, leaving a $60 million hole.
The district has cut costs far and wide — from reducing busing costs by millions of dollars to paying new teachers ridiculously small sums until they pass probation — to close that gap. But in the end, the cuts could run too deep and end in layoffs and harm to the classroom. Right now, the district still expects a $19 million budget shortfall.
Raising the tax rate by 0.25 mill would bring in about $14 million more in property tax revenue. The district would still have less money than last year, but at least the additional cuts would be more in the range of the possible.
Raising tax rates in a recession, even a little, is a tougher call than it would be in better times. But Tuesday's vote doesn't make it final. A no vote kills the idea and closes out a viable option for the district. A yes vote keeps the idea alive as budget discussions continue. Two more votes, one in July and one in September, would be required before the tax rate could increase.
The School Board faces this difficult choice because the Legislature, while keeping per pupil spending roughly even, has failed to provide the money that schools need to thrive. Even with the infusion of federal stimulus money and some accounting gimmickry, the state still has punted the problem to individual districts, allowing them to raise the tax rate by 0.25 mill if a supermajority — five of seven in Pinellas — of the board members agree. Even if the tax rate increase were to pass, it could not remain in effect past the next general election unless voters themselves approve.
Public schools cannot be slowly starved. There are always ways to cut spending and improve efficiency, and Pinellas has made significant strides in that direction. This tax increase would cost $25 for a homeowner with $100,000 of assessed taxable value. That's $2 a month, a relatively small price to pay ensure that the quality of public education is not put further at risk.