1. The Education Gradebook

Growing state reliance on property taxes for schools raises ire

Published Sep. 17, 2015

Gov. Rick Scott and his education team are touting an "historic" increase in per-pupil funding in Florida schools next year.

But the state's proposed education budget relies more than ever on higher property taxes paid by homeowners and businesses, and a key Republican senator calls that an election-year tax increase that he can't support.

The state Board of Education, comprised of Scott appointees, endorsed a legislative budget request that would increase K-12 funding next year by $476 million, to $20.2 billion. All but $50 million of that increase would be borne by local property taxpayers as a result of higher property values.

That's a sure sign of a stronger economy, but some Republicans in the Legislature say it's also a tax increase. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which helpsl write the education budget, says it will be "very, very difficult" for senators to support.

"I don't think what Florida's economy needs right now is a property tax increase," Gaetz told the Times/Herald. "I don't think it's right or fair for Tallahassee politicians to reach around and pat themselves and each other on the back about record per-pupil funding and then make local school boards do the heavy lifting."

Gaetz is a former school board member and elected school superintendent in Okaloosa County.

The Department of Education's proposed budget would boost per-pupil funding by $104 next year to a new high of $7,209. The state projects 26,000 new students in the K-12 system, for a total of 2.8 million.

Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart presented the numbers Wednesday to a House budget panel, telling lawmakers: "Property values have gone up. That's good news for homeowners."

But Gaetz said he's mobilizing opposition to the budget, saying: "I've been moping about that to my fellow senators." Gaetz made the same argument in the 2015 session, but the amount of state tax money devoted to public schools rose by $286 million in the current year's budget. That's six times as much as the state is proposing for next year.

Expect fireworks when Gaetz's budget subcommittee examines the proposed education budget in the next round of committee meetings in the first week of October.

Relations between Scott's administration and the Senate have gone from bad to worse in the past year following a series of clashes involving health care policy, Scott's budget vetoes and the use of job incentive money by Enterprise Florida.

Scott will send his budget recommendations to the Legislature in December. Scott's spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, noted that the growth in school spending "is a result of the increase in the value of Florida property, which is a good thing."

The property tax share of the school budget is known as required local effort. By law, the Legislature and governor set the property tax rate that all 67 school boards are required to impose on taxpayers, currently about $51 for every $1,000 of taxable value.

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Even if the rate remains the same next year as expected, the growth in property values including new construction would be 5.2 percent or $85 billion, creating a potential windfall in school spending.


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