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School officials set battle plan for tax

After he spoke recently to a civic group about the upcoming school tax referendum, Superintendent Tom Weightman had a conversation with a Pasco resident adamantly opposed to the tax proposal.

Weightman couldn't convince the man that the school district needs the proposed penny increase in the sales tax, the subject of a special voter referendum on Sept. 12.

The superintendent tried an approach that has convinced others: "Don't you think that the older generation owes it to the younger generation?" Weightman asked the man.

"I expected some sort of concession," Weightman told the School Board on Tuesday night. "But what I got was a flat, "Absolutely not.' "

Those are the people Weightman and Assistant Superintendent John Long have been trying to reach as they travel the county speaking to groups. A district committee also is working on ways to convince the unconvinced that the extra sales tax is necessary.

Weightman, Long and the School Board briefly discussed the opposition they have encountered so far and how they plan to counter it.

The tax would bring in about $95-million and be used for school construction and renovation and for computers and other technology. By law, the sales tax increase ends in five years.

Some opponents _ including those who have written letters to the Times _ scoff at the idea that the tax will end in five years. No way, they say, will government ever take away a tax once it is in place.

Long, a former legislator, said he tries to explain that the tax "cannot be extended, no matter how much the people in this room would like it to be. It's just simply not permissible under law."

Some confusion has occurred because Hillsborough County residents are being asked to fund a tax increase that would last 10 years, but Long said that proposal falls under a different law and has nothing to do with the district's tax request.

Inevitably, the lottery also comes up. Residents want to know why that money didn't go to improve education, and why it is used in the general fund instead.

"I hear that, I think, more than anything else," said School Board Chairwoman Marge Whaley. "(People say), "I've been duped once (by the lottery) and I don't want to be again.' "

Whaley reminds them that the lottery is a state matter. No one in the local district has control over how lottery funds are used _ that's up to the Legislature.

Moreover, Whaley and others in the district often speak of feeling "duped" themselves when it comes to the lottery. Yet, she and district officials acknowledged Tuesday that they have to explain about the Lottery continually. It has become a key reason many people don't want to support the tax increase.

Weightman said that many people who have expressed opposition agree that the school district needs the money, but will not support any kind of tax increase.

That is when he trots out his don't-you-think-we-owe-the-kids speech. That approach may well become an important argument through the summer.

If youngsters graduate with good skills and go on to decent-paying jobs either right out of high school or after college, they will continue to pay into the Social Security system, Weightman said. Those who can't find decent jobs will pay less into the system or nothing at all.

He had district staff employees do some research, and they found that a retired person who paid the maximum into the Social Security system for 42 years contributed $43,800. Using the average monthly Social Security check of $1,200, that person "earned" back all of the money put in in just less than three years, not accounting for inflation or interest.

"So the fact is that retired people, if they expect to continue to get a Social Security check, have to have someone paying in," Weightman said.

When he makes that case, he isn't just speaking as the school superintendent.

"I'm getting close to retirement age myself," said Weightman, who plans to retire at the end of 1996. "I'm concerned about that myself."

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