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Nearly 10 years old, special Pinellas school tax seen as 'a blessing' to arts, technology programs

Ymani Hunter works to draw on her iPad as art teacher Sue Bley, standing in background, leads the class during a third-grade art class at Lakewood Elementary School in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
Published Jan. 13, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Flip books, with a stick figure walking across the pages, have gone digital at Lakewood Elementary.

Flowers bloomed. Fish swam. Rain fell. All with the help of Flip It, an iPad arts program based on the idea of animating old-school flip books. Third graders drew with their fingertips, carefully adding digital pages to their "books" to make pictures come to life with a press of the screen.

Art teacher Sue Bley called it a "whole different game."

Lakewood Elementary is one of about a dozen elementary schools that will take a turn this year with the Pinellas County school system's new traveling iPad arts labs. The initiative is one that likely wouldn't be possible without a special property tax approved by voters for the third time last year.

The property tax, which brought in $24.4 million to public schools last year, primarily supports teacher salaries. About 20 percent of the money raised each year goes to technology, arts, music and reading. It has been credited with preventing the kind of budget cuts that have curtailed arts programs in other counties.

"It's phenomenal — actually, I would say it's almost frightening the things our students would not have if not for the generosity of our citizens," said Linda Kearschner, immediate past chair of the Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee, or ICROC, which keeps tabs on how the public's money has been spent.

Committee members will give the School Board an update Tuesday about how the property tax money was used in the 2012-13 school year. The tax was first approved in 2004, then again in 2008 and 2012, each time with overwhelming support of voters. With the recent renewal, the tax won't go before voters again until 2017.

For a homeowner, it amounts to about $50 per year per $100,000 in taxable value. The tax has raised more than $230 million since collections began. All of the tax dollars stay in Pinellas.

Most of the money spent last year — $22.6 million — boosted teacher salaries, with each teacher getting a bit less than $3,000. The rest paid for teacher training, art supplies, books and musical instruments, among other items.

Kearschner said the money was "distributed well" throughout the county. Tax dollars were used to bolster existing programs as well as to add new ones, she said.

Northeast High added a choral director, part of an effort to revive its program. Dixie Hollins High got new band uniforms. More than 100 schools received SMART boards; 366 boards were distributed. More than 6,000 students went on field trips to local museums and galleries.

Jonathan Ogle, an art technology specialist, said tax dollars have paid for better quality art supplies each year; one of the first big improvements after the referendum passed was buying new furniture for arts rooms.

The traveling iPad art labs, which will go to a dozen schools this year, including Lakewood Elementary, are an important addition to the arts curriculum, he said. With more digital arts in middle and high schools, school officials thought it made sense to expand to younger grades, he said. They couldn't afford iPads for every elementary school so the concept of the traveling arts lab was born. The iPads were purchased last year.

About a dozen third graders at Lakewood Elementary used the iPads last week to make flip books.

Nya Celestin, 9, colored her entire screen blue before adding three orange fish. To make them move, she drew each fish again on separate pages, a little farther away each time. Her art teacher, Bley, had to remind her to redraw each fish, rather than jumping from three on one page to one on another.

The drawing exercise was familiar to Layla Summers. The eight year old said she doesn't draw on paper. She has an iPad to use at home.

Ogle said part of adding technology to classrooms is to reach students where they are; even many toddlers now are adept at using an iPhone. Many of those efforts wouldn't be possible without the special property tax, he said.

"(It) has been such a blessing."

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.

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