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Florida voters are saying yes when school districts ask for more money. Is that a good thing?

Parent volunteers Kristina O'Kelley, left, and Alina Font explain a sales tax for Hillsborough County schools to neighbor Barbara Landry before the Nov. 6 election. The measure passed easily, similar to what happened in other Florida counties this election cycle. Districts welcome the support but worry it will send a message to Tallahassee that they won't have to allocate as much money to public schools.[MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published Nov. 12, 2018

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins takes a clear message from last week's election, which saw many Floridians vote to tax themselves more to help public schools meet rising costs.

People see the challenges firsthand and "they know they want better," he said, referring to tax referendums that won approval in Hillsborough and seven other Florida school districts.

But some fear lawmakers in Tallahassee will draw a different conclusion from the voters' willingness to pitch in — that now, despite inflation and growing enrollment, they won't have to funnel as much state money into schools.

The point comes through starkly as Ron DeSantis, an anti-tax Republican, prepares to be sworn in as Florida's next governor. He will work with a Republican-dominated Legislature that has long been criticized as being stingy with school funds. And that's not likely to change, considering Tuesday's passage of a constitutional amendment that will limit the state's ability to increase taxes.

So is Florida headed for a world where public schools rely more and more on money from local tax referendums? And if so, how would that change the state's decades-old practice of spreading the wealth so children don't get short-changed based on where they live?

"It's a grave concern," said Andrea Messina, a former Charlotte County School Board member who now leads the Florida School Boards Association. "The more we rely on local dollars to provide for educational needs, the greater the disparity could be."

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Here's how the issues break down:

In the primary and general elections this year, voters across Florida approved 18 local referendums to help pay for expenses such as campus security, new classrooms and salaries.

Then, DeSantis won narrowly on a platform of seeking out bureaucratic waste rather than increasing revenue to improve school funding. He aims to direct 80 percent of the state education budget "into the classroom," raising questions about how that might affect things like buses and fences — not to mention how districts will afford other items not designated as "classroom" expenses.

Add to the mix voter approval of Amendment 5, requiring approval from at least two-thirds of the Legislature to increase or add state fees and taxes. The proposal specifically excludes fees or taxes imposed or authorized by school boards. But it remains an open question if it will apply to the annual legislative decision whether to allow districts to collect more tax revenue as property values increase.

District leaders, along with many state officials, have pushed for three years to leave state-approved tax rates alone so income can rise naturally with values. Senate Education Appropriations chair Kathleen Passidomo said it's still too early to tell how Amendment 5 will affect those rates.

Topping it off, the Florida Supreme Court has yet to determine the fate of a lawsuit that challenges whether the state is meeting its constitutional duty to adequately fund a high quality public education system.

The upshot: If districts will be relying more on local referendum money, it could lead to even greater gaps between haves and have-nots.

Across the nation, inequitable education funding systems generally arise when they're tied to local property taxes, said Mike Griffith, a school finance expert for the Education Commission of the States, a policy group.
Districts with high property wealth can generate more money than those with less, and much of it depends on arbitrary boundary lines. That happens in places like Illinois and Texas.

"People start to see the differences in spending" per student, Griffith said. "People get that, and they'll say that's not fair."

Florida was one of the states that established a school funding system to smooth the edges, establishing a statewide per-student spending amount and setting up a taxing system that wouldn't let any district get too far away from any other.

But as in many other states, some school officials found that equity alone isn't the true goal, Griffith noted. "It's equity and adequacy."

And lawmakers offering 47 cents more per student for general operations, as they did in 2018, doesn't help districts deal with their bottom line, even though they got extra money for specific line items, Eakins said.

School districts that can are more likely to tap into local sources, he said, perhaps exacerbating the disparities. Eakins suggested that local option taxes should supplement state funding, not become a district's core revenue stream.

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins spoke at dozens of town halls and other events to make the case for a schools sales tax. The measure passed in Hillsborough, echoing similar outcomes in many other Florida counties this election cycle. Voters see the challenges firsthand and “they know they want better,” he said.

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Sen. Passidomo, a Naples Republican, said she's still trying to wrap her mind around the local tax referendum movement in Florida. On the one hand, she said, it's increasingly clear that residents are willing to pay more for education.

But on the other, she continued, it's not as needed as some district leaders profess.

"I think the dollars we provide to the districts are adequate for what they need to provide quality education to their students," she said, noting that some districts seem to be surviving without asking for more.

Passidomo predicted that, as lawmakers and others set priorities, the "funding will follow the philosophy."

Messina, of the school boards association, held out hope that a legislative definition of tax increase, and a court ruling on the meaning of a high quality education, will help Floridians sort out the situation.

At the same time, she said, everyone needs to keep in mind that voters supporting school referendums are the same people who lawmakers suggest aren't willing to accept higher taxes.

"I'm going to be hopeful that traditional public educators will work with the new administration in positive ways, to find ways to improve education for all students," Messina said. "But that doesn't mean it won't be a heavy lift."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @JeffSolochek.