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Group ramps up campaign for tax hike to aid schools

With a little more than a month before Election Day, a citizens group is confident its campaign for a tax referendum for Pinellas schools will succeed.

A speakers bureau is up and running.

More than 40,000 fliers aimed at absentee voters have been printed.

And incoming superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the Pinellas County Council of PTAs have endorsed the Nov. 2 ballot measure asking Pinellas voters to approve a half-mill property tax increase for teacher raises and selected programs.

"We feel very good about where we are," said Bill Heller, chairman of the group, Citizens for Pinellas Schools. "We think we'll have good support from the community in recognizing that need."

Whether the group can translate its optimism into votes remains to be seen in the coming weeks. A late start has hampered the campaign. The School Board placed the matter on the ballot in July. Heller was named chairman in August, and a goal to raise $75,000 by this week netted only half that amount.

But the group is laying out its case to the public. On Thursday, leaders spoke to the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times.

What Pinellas needs is qualified teachers, Heller said. Enrollment in colleges of education is down. Competition for teachers is keen, and the state of Florida ranks 49th in the number of ninth-graders who graduate high school.

The good news: Voters realize the direct connection between good schools, property values and an educated workforce, the group said.

"We're looking at the value our school system has to offer," said Mitch Lee, Raytheon vice president and former chairman of the Pinellas County Education Foundation. He said a more educated population could mean less crime and less dependence on social programs. The referendum "is a tremendous investment for a very small price," he said.

The referendum asks voters to increase the district's property tax rate by 50 cents on every $1,000 of assessed valuation. For a home assessed at $150,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the tax would cost an extra $62.50 a year. The tax would expire in four years unless voters renewed it.

If passed, the measure would generate $26-million annually, which would be used primarily to bring teacher salaries closer to the national average.

Pinellas salaries now hover around $40,000 annually, about $6,000 less than the national benchmark. The measure also would provide money for various programs, including reading, music and art.

Administrators say the district needs additional revenue to sidestep future deficits, provide teacher raises and combat rising health care costs.

The next phase of the campaign focuses on talking to average Pinellas residents and reaching them through mass media, said Beth Rawlins, who helped organize the initiative.

The group already has developed and distributed videos to more than 100 civic organizations, asking for their yes vote. Campaign teams are being formed in every school, and a version of the video has been made that doesn't try to persuade voters one way or the other so that it can be played in schools.

The Citizens for Pinellas Schools members say they have run into little opposition to the tax. In fact, a 2003 poll by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association showed the greatest support for a tax increase coming from Pinellas beach communities, where there are relatively few children and high property values, Rawlins said.