Pinellas School Board OKs $1.8B budget with teacher pay still in dispute

Property owners will see their tax rate decline for the 11th straight year.
A sign highlighting Pinellas County School Board members greets visitors to school district headquarters in Largo. The board approved its 2022-23 budget on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.
A sign highlighting Pinellas County School Board members greets visitors to school district headquarters in Largo. The board approved its 2022-23 budget on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Sept. 14, 2022|Updated Sept. 14, 2022

The Pinellas County School Board put the finishing touches on their 2022-23 budget Tuesday, approving a $1.8 billion spending plan with a property tax rate that is 36 cents per $1,000 of taxable value lower than a year ago.

An 18% jump in the county’s overall property value will help boost the district’s bottom line. But the state prevents school boards from leaving their tax rates unchanged to take full advantage of the increase, unlike municipalities.

The tax rate of $5.96 per $1,000 of value is lower than at any time in the past 50 years, while property values have jumped almost 60%, to $125 billion, since 2008, according to district records.

Several teachers and staff called on the board during Tuesday’s meeting to make salaries a greater priority. They noted that the cost of living has risen to the point that they can barely afford to live in the area, with some suggesting that neighboring Pasco County’s recent agreement to boost pay by 5% or more is looking attractive.

One 29-year teacher said her past annual raises have not covered the rising cost of gas to get to and from work. A support staff member spoke of struggling to keep up with rent.

“I do deserve a decent rate of salary,” said Shirley Patterson, a data management technician.

District administrators said they are working to funnel as much money as possible into pay. Negotiations are ongoing with the employee unions.

At the same time, though, they noted that the state has placed restrictions on how much of the budget is spent, while increasing costs are affecting the district as well. Chief finance officer Kevin Smith said issues such as rising retirement contributions and the Legislature’s mandate to push schools’ minimum wage to $15 an hour by Oct. 1 are not excuses.

“This is yet another requirement that comes without specific funding,” Smith said, calling it a challenge that the finance team had to work through.

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi said employees understand the limitations the district faces. “But even within those constraints, the people must be your priority,” she said.

Two-thirds of the district’s $1 billion operating budget is to be spent in the classroom. The district also has a $343 million capital projects budget, which includes items such as $19.6 million for a YMCA partnership school in northeast St. Petersburg and $5.5 million for Lakewood High renovations. Its third-largest fund is $169.9 million for self-insurance.

The total budget increased from $1.66 billion last year. Property tax revenue is projected to rise by $72 million.

Board member Lisa Cane cast the only vote against the budget and tax rate. She said all residents are struggling under current inflationary conditions, with many unable to boost their incomes.

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“It is not a good time to increase our requirements of the community,” Cane said.

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