LAND O’LAKES — Pasco County voters might soon decide whether to increase school district property taxes in support of higher faculty and staff pay, which are lower than in surrounding counties.
School Board members on Tuesday called for an April workshop to discuss the possibility of holding a referendum later this year.
“We’re at a critical time,” board member Colleen Beaudoin said. “We have to address this.”
The board called for the conversation after United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace made an impassioned plea for the district to consider such a move. Peace talked about the positive steps the district has made in recent years, even during the pandemic, but warned that employee morale has declined and said pay is a critical factor.
Voters in Pinellas and Hernando counties supported secondary revenue sources to boost their salaries and other school programs two years ago, Peace said. Hillsborough is discussing one.
“It’s a 15- to 20-minute drive to Hillsborough, Hernando and Pinellas,” said Peace, who has advocated for a property tax referendum since 2018. “We want to keep our people here.”
Board members and district administrators have in the past been reluctant to consider asking voters to boost the tax rate. Times have changed, they said.
The Legislature has not provided enough added revenue to support pay raises for all employees, they noted, directing most money toward the base pay of classroom teachers but not other educators or support workers. Other extra funds have been tied to expenses specified by the state, and not available for general operations.
With staff burnout rising, along with job vacancies, board vice chairperson Megan Harding said, a referendum appears to be the important next step.
Some officials have raised concerns about conflicting with the district’s plan to seek voter renewal of the Penny for Pasco, which expires in 2024. They have worried that residents might not support two tax requests within the same short time span.
Board member Alison Crumbley said both are needed to keep the district moving ahead.
“We must have the Penny for Pasco to have the capital projects we need,” Crumbley said. A property tax “would support the operating side of the budget.”
That’s important, she said, in that many district employees cannot afford to rent the new apartments rising along State Road 54 in southern Pasco.
Beaudoin held out hope that voters would be supportive, noting they backed four bond referendums from the County Commission in 2018.
Harding asked the staff to draw up time lines for options the board can consider about its possible referendums.
“We need to move quickly if we want to have it,” Beaudoin added.
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Parent Alicia Zilay, who attended the board meeting, encouraged the board to pursue the tax vote.
“We need that referendum,” Zilay said. “We need to keep the staff we have.”
Peace said he was hopeful the board will follow through.
“If we don’t do something this year,” he said, “the impact is going to be enormous, and not in a positive way.”
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