Citizens committee keeps tabs on tax dollars for Pinellas schools

Published May 5, 2012

Thirty-one guitars hang on the wall. Beside each is the name of a famous guitarist.

Jimi Hendrix. Keith Richards. Robert Johnson.

In the next room, a middle school band belts out a flourish. Brass sousaphones bop up and down while an instructor waves his hands in time.

More than a dozen well-dressed adults have come to this classroom to see exactly how $30 million a year in taxes are being used. In 2004, Pinellas County voters approved a half-mill property tax hike to support reading, music, art, technology and teacher pay in schools, on the condition that a committee of citizens meet regularly to keep an eye on the spending.

Since then, the seven members have pored over spreadsheets and reported to the School Board. In 2008, the tax passed easily.

But in today's heightened anti-tax climate, the work of this low-profile public body could serve as an important selling point as voters are asked on Nov. 6 to once again support the tax.

"I don't know what we would do if we didn't have this funding," said Mitch Lee, an executive of Raytheon Co., who has served on the Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee, or ICROC, from the beginning.

In the first year of the committee's existence, Lee said, it took some work to make clear to district officials that they wanted to look at expenditures in detail.

Anecdotes and testimonials wouldn't be enough.

"It's very easy now to quickly validate something," Lee said. "It's very efficient now and it's very clear the money is being spent the way it's supposed to."

By the end of the 2010-11 school year, the tax supplemented teachers' salaries by about $3,000 per year and outfitted schools with about $38 million in reading materials, art supplies, band uniforms, wireless computer labs and more.

The half-mill amounts to about $50 per year per $100,000 in taxable value. So far, no vocal opposition to the tax has emerged.

Today, representatives on the referendum committee appear to be a self-selected group of volunteers who, over the years, have been tapped by their predecessors from the same organizations.

They come from the League of Women Voters, the Pinellas Education Foundation, the Pinellas County Council of PTAs, the Economic Development Council, Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, and the Pinellas Realtor Organization.

None of the members seem to be vocal anti-tax advocates, said Beth Rawlins, who chairs a political action committee supporting the tax. But Rawlins says that several avowed conservatives who are "predisposed to be suspicious of taxes have supported this."

During public committee meetings, members hear from district curriculum leaders about Smart Boards and iPads, auditorium upgrades and museum field trips, literacy interventions and teacher training.

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On days like this, they also tour classes.

Here at St. Petersburg's Azalea Middle, where more than 80 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, dollars from the half-mill property tax have helped expand popular music programs like guitar and more.

"Many of our schools had no funds to repair instruments," explains Jeanne Reynolds, supervisor of performing arts for Pinellas County schools, recalling the days before voters overwhelmingly approved that tax. Now, kids whose families can't afford instrument rentals and repairs don't lose out, she says.

The adults listen. Some nod. A retired principal pontificates about the benefits of music education in teaching students discipline and keeping them in school. Then, the group moves to another classroom.

Rawlins says this kind of citizen oversight has been critical to its success. Over the years, she said, the group has been concerned that the dollars spent be on programs and supplies that have staying power. Spending money on instruments, for example, means also allocating funds for repairs. "Their very existence keeps the district on its toes," Rawlins said.

On this particular day, Azalea's principal has asked three eighth-graders to tell the panel about their experiences in AVID, a referendum-funded program designed to give promising students from challenging circumstance the tools and strategies they need to succeed in college prep classes and beyond.

"I used to be a typical student," young Cherish Robinson says with a smile, "a couple of C's, one D. Now, I'm making the principal's list kind of all the time."

If voters reject the tax, collection will end on June 30, 2013.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707.