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Board likes idea of tax for pay hike

A majority of the Pinellas County School Board went on record Tuesday night supporting a November referendum that would fund teacher raises and other expenses with a property tax increase.

But the board has not yet approved such a measure and scheduled a Feb. 12 workshop to discuss the details of how it might be placed on the ballot.

"There is not the money to deal with what I call basic needs," board member Linda Lerner told an audience of about 100 Pinellas teachers, who applauded the majority stand. "I don't see any other way but a referendum."

Board members Lee Benjamin, Mary Brown and Jane Gallucci joined Lerner in strongly supporting the measure. Board members Carol Cook and Mary Russell offered qualified support, saying they had serious concerns about how the measure would be designed and presented to voters.

Board member Nancy Bostock supported further discussion of the issue, but said she feared the Pinellas teachers union and the board were gearing up to manipulate the electorate with a public relations campaign.

The School District has not yet developed a proposal for how much of a property tax increase might be considered, but the teacher's union has suggested adding 50 cents or $1 on every $1,000 of assessed valuation. That would put the increase in the range of $62 to $125 a year for the owner of a $150,000 home.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley laid out the district's financial situation, saying Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget for the next fiscal year would give the district $25-million to $28-million in new money but would not cover the district's needs.

He said it would pay for up to 200 new teachers needed to comply with the class-size amendment, plus increases in health, utility and insurance costs, but would leave "almost no money available" for teacher raises.

"I'm tired of waiting for the state to come up with the help that we need," Benjamin said.

"Painful cuts have already been made; we are down to the bone," said Beth Rawlins, a parent with two middle school children who is leading Citizens for Pinellas Schools, Inc., a group formed to push for the tax.

The School Board pledged two years ago to bring salaries for Pinellas teachers up to the national average but has not had the money to follow through on the promise.

The average teacher salary in Pinellas is about $40,000, which is about $6,000 lower than the national average. The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing the district's 8,000 teachers, estimates it would take three years of 7 percent pay increases to catch up.

A recent poll by the union indicates about half the likely voters in the November election definitely or probably would support a property tax increase for teacher pay increases and other costs.

One potential hurdle is a state law that would make the increase temporary. Current law would limit the increase to four years, however the Legislature has been asked this year to extend the limit to 10 years.

In an interview, Hinesley expressed concern about the four-year limit, saying teachers would be hesitant to make personal spending commitments. He said the Sarasota County School District, which approved such a tax in 2002, already is starting to get nervous about what it would do if voters do not renew the tax.

The superintendent added he thinks the Pinellas business community would support the measure and assist the district in communicating to voters.

"We have an educated and informed electorate," Hinesley said. "They have always supported the district when they knew the facts."

If the School Board were to agree to the referendum, board members would have to craft ballot language, take a formal vote and send the item to the County Commission for final approval.

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