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Hernando schools seek tax hike to support teacher pay, campus security

Voters will consider the referendum on Nov. 3. Supporters started their campaign Thursday.
Vandana Kapilesh, a math teacher from India, works with her students during class at Fox Chapel Middle School on Oct. 31, 2019. The school district is asking voters to support a property tax increase to help improve teacher salaries.
Vandana Kapilesh, a math teacher from India, works with her students during class at Fox Chapel Middle School on Oct. 31, 2019. The school district is asking voters to support a property tax increase to help improve teacher salaries. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 10, 2020
Updated Sep. 10, 2020

Citing a need to improve wages to retain top teachers, Hernando County school district supporters and officials on Thursday unveiled a campaign aimed at convincing voters to increase their local property tax by $1 per $1,000 of taxable value.

The proposal, which appears on the county’s Nov. 3 general election ballot, would generate about $11 million a year for the four years it would be in effect, said Sam Wagoner, co-chairman of the political action committee formed to support the measure. In addition to boosting teacher pay, the revenue would go toward enhancing school security, providing more mental health services, and expanding career-technical education programs.

“The cost to the individual is small while the benefit to the community is huge,” Wagoner said during a Zoom conference call with news reporters.

Retired principal Sue Stoops, another campaign co-chair, said the district needs to make its salaries more attractive. She mentioned one of her former teachers, who asked for a reference letter to secure a job as a researcher at Moffitt Cancer Center.

“That’s the kind of teacher we can lose if we don’t become competitive,” Stoops said, noting that the Legislature’s allocation of $500 million statewide for better teacher pay did not impact veteran educators in any meaningful way. Keeping the teachers in Hernando “is the primary reason for this referendum.”

In pursuing this revenue source, Hernando is the latest in a growing list of Florida school districts to ask its residents to provide money that the Legislature has not offered. Pinellas County is seeking a fourth extension of its local-option tax, first approved in 2004.

In 2018, ten districts placed tax referenda before voters in the August primary. All passed.

Hernando’s vote comes at a tough time, given the battering the economy took as businesses shut down during the coronavirus pandemic. Also, the district already has in place a voter-approved local sales tax, which could lead voters to think they have already passed a tax for schools.

The sales tax revenue can be used for construction, maintenance and capital projects only. The property tax would go toward the identified expenses in the general operating budget.

School Board member Gus Guadagnino observed that pitching the new charge could prove a heavy lift. He anticipated it will need to include much face-to-face campaigning with detailed explanations. He urged the campaign committee to come up with a detailed game plan.

Wagoner said the group already has begun fundraising to support its coordinated effort to reach out into the community.

Superintendent John Stratton, meanwhile, pledged transparency in the district’s handling of whatever money it receives. He said a citizens oversight committee would be charged with ensuring the district spends the revenue as promised.

“We expect to be held accountable,” Stratton said.

District officials first began discussing the possibility of a property tax referendum two years ago, when the state imposed new security requirements on schools. The board returned to the topic in June 2019, stressing at that time that teacher pay was problematic.

Those two items of pay and security have become key components of the initiative.

The school district has posted several pages on its website to explain the details of the referendum. The political action committee formed to advocate for the tax, while the district provides information.