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  1. Education

Forget all their other election goofs, at least Florida voters got this one right

OCTAVIO JONES | Times Hillsborough County voters will go to the polls in November to decide on a referendum for a half-cent sales tax increase. Other counties have approved similar measures to help school districts.
Published Sep. 1, 2018

The popular narrative coming out of Tuesday's election is that we are more divided than ever. We've abandoned the center lane, with everyone making sharp turns left and right.

And, when you consider the philosophical divide between the two leading gubernatorial candidates, it does seem like a made-for-TV plot line.

But consider this twist.

Across the state, tens of thousands of voters came to the same conclusion last week on the same topic. We're talking big counties, and small. From the Keys to the Panhandle.

When asked, they all decided we're not doing enough to fund education.

And so 10 out of 10 counties voted to raise their own taxes to aid struggling school districts. Combined with two ballot wins in March, that's 12 victories in a row for a bipartisan cause.

I'm thinking that suggests two things:

No. 1, a lot of people agree education is more important than partisan politics.

No. 2, few people believe Tallahassee's bunk about historic education spending.

The truth is, per-pupil funding in Florida is just now getting back to its high-water mark of 2006-07, which was far below national standards in the first place. And that means 11 years of inflation have been completely ignored. Not to mention, most of the state's funds for capital improvements have gone to charter schools in recent years, leaving traditional schools with severe infrastructure problems.

"Our citizens and our students deserve up-to-date, modernized facilities,'' said Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego. "The standard should not be a working air conditioner unit. But that's what it's coming down to for a lot of districts.''

That's why voters in Martin County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1, agreed to pass a tax increase for the first time in 12 years. That's why voters in Lake, Clay and Monroe counties agreed to referendums to help pay for the state's unfunded mandate for armed security on campuses. That's why Broward and Orange counties approved initiatives that will fund, among other things, teacher raises.

And the trend is not stopping with the primary season.

Seven more counties have ballot initiatives in November to bail out schools. That means, in a single calendar year, 19 districts were desperate enough to ask residents for a tax increase. Those districts, by the way, represent more than half the students in the state.

Hillsborough voters might want to keep all of this in mind when they go to the polls later this year. Faced with heavy debt, and a fair number of crumbling schools, the district is rushing to put its own referendum for a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot in November.

The timing, clearly, is not good. With voters already being asked to approve a 1-cent increase for a transportation initiative, Hillsborough may be pushing its luck with voters.

The alternative, however, is equally unpleasant.

Both Grego and Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins say their districts have lost about $400 million in funding during the last decade because the state sought to lower millage rates during the recession.

Eakins said the success of recent referendums indicates voters understand the predicament that districts are finding themselves in after years of inadequate funding.

"We've done everything we could to be efficient with the tax dollars we have the past few years, but the numbers we're getting from Tallahassee are not going to work,'' Eakins said. "That's the message you're seeing from other communities: Help is not coming from elsewhere.''

There's an argument to be made that some districts, including Hillsborough, did not manage their money well in the past decade. And those bills are coming due today.

But it's also true Florida has lagged far behind dozens of other states when it comes to providing adequate funding for education. And that effect is also being seen today.

Thankfully, voters seem to be looking beyond the usual finger-pointing.

They recognize the real issue is our children.

And they're stepping up to help.

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