Few things in government work as well as the optional special property tax for Pinellas County public schools. Eight years of the modest levy have enabled the financially strapped district to retain teachers, add technology and enrich the arts. As the Legislature continues to be stingy with education dollars, the local tax is as vital as ever and a wise investment for taxpayers. Voters should renew the tax for four more years.
It was in the wake of state funding cuts in 2004 that Pinellas voters first approved the optional half-mill property tax and then renewed it in 2008. This year's referendum is another extension that would include the same parameters for how the money would be spent: 80 percent earmarked for increasing teacher pay, which lags behind other major counties; and 20 percent dedicated to music, art and reading programs and buying technology. The property tax is 50 cents on every $1,000 of taxable value. For the average Pinellas home worth $137,911 that qualifies for a $25,000 homestead exemption, the cost is $56.46 annually.
The referendum will also ensure the same impressive accountability. The Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee — a group of seven citizens — meets publicly four times a year to decide which of the school district's ideas will be funded with the money. And it ensures that the money goes to enhancing education, not to programs that are the state's responsibility to fund. The committee's decisions can be found at pcsb.org, under "ICROC" on the quick links page. But the evidence is tangible in every Pinellas public school.
Elementary children now have dedicated art classrooms; all schools have mobile computer labs; the strings program has doubled in size in the past five years; instrument fees are waived for students who can't afford them; band uniforms have been purchased or paid off for every high school; and auditoriums' lighting and sound equipment is being updated. More than $3.2 million in books have been purchased for libraries, including providing books for every elementary classroom. Secondary students reading below grade level now receive daily help; 710 teachers have been trained to support reading education; and a variety of technology — from iPads to Smart Boards — has been purchased. The money also supplements programs such as advanced placement, foreign language, and magnet and fundamental schools.
The tax also provides supplemental pay of about $3,000 annually for teachers. That dedicated funding source — untouchable by Tallahassee — has helped the district remain somewhat competitive with surrounding counties. Pinellas enrollment has stagnated as other counties have grown, so Pinellas receives a smaller share of what has been a diminishing pot of state money.
On most Pinellas ballots, the referendum, "Approval of the continuation of the half-mill ad valorem tax for school district operation expenses" will be the last item. Don't miss it, and don't confuse it with the state constitutional amendments. This is a proven local program that works.
On the Pinellas referendum for the extension of the half-mill property tax for public schools, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting yes.