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  1. Education

On the ballot for another renewal, Pinellas school tax supplements funding from Tallahassee

The Osceola Fundamental High School marching band performs Jan. 18, 2016 in the National Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Justice Parade in St. Petersburg. The school is one of many receiving funds from Pinellas County’s special property tax for schools. The 2015-16 budget for the tax included money for new uniforms for the Osceola band. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times] 
Published Oct. 24, 2016

A special property tax easily won over Pinellas County voters when it debuted on the 2004 ballot, promising more dollars for teachers, reading programs, music and the arts. It survived two more renewal votes in 2008 and 2012, even through the economic downturn and the tea party wave, garnering more than 60 percent each time.

This time, as the school district seeks another four-year renewal, proponents of the tax worry that today's voters won't appreciate the positive impact it has had on the system. Opponents say the district should fund its expenses using the billion-dollar purse it has.

With early voting starting this week, here is a breakdown showing how the tax works and where the money goes.

What it costs you

• $72.50 a year for the owner of a single-family home with a $25,000 homestead exemption and a taxable value of $170,000, the median in Pinellas.

• $85 for the owner of a $170,000 home without a homestead exemption.

• $45 for the owner of a condominium with a median taxable value of $90,000 and no exemption.

The tax is 50 cents on every $1,000 of assessed taxable value.

How much it brings in

About $33 million a year, on average.

What the money buys

Eighty percent goes to augment teachers' salaries and help pay for teacher recruitment. The rest goes to update textbooks and technology, and preserve reading, music and arts programs.

The details

Below, from the 2015-2016 budget, are some specifics on how the money is spent.

Teachers: Every Pinellas teacher this school year will receive a salary supplement of $3,827 because of the referendum, which brings the district's starting teacher pay to $41,155. Without the supplement, the starting salary would be $37,328. Pasco and Hillsborough counties, which do not have a similar referendum, started their teachers in 2015 at $38,120 and $38,000, respectively.

Visual arts: $410,000 for items such as iPad labs at four middle schools and eight elementary schools; $245,000 for art materials and supplies in K-12 art courses; and $180,000 for art field trips.

Performing arts: $442,000 for salaries and instruments for the strings program; $286,000 to refresh performing arts technology labs at Seminole, East Lake and Tarpon Springs high schools; $156,000 to fund the choral program at Bay Point Elementary, plus a Lakewood Elementary teacher, a Morgan Fitzgerald Middle choral class and a performing arts technology resource teacher.

Technology: $396,000 for projector bulbs, replacement projectors and cables; and $918,000 for Smart Boards at 56 schools, interactive projectors and curriculum for Smart Board lessons.

Reading: $200,000 for first-grade teacher reading assessment kits; $376,000 for text support to help teachers meet Florida standards; and $70,000 for science-related literature.

Who supports the tax

Several organizations, including the Pinellas Realtor Organization, League of Women Voters, Pinellas County Council PTA, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Arts for a Complete Education, Service Employees International Union, Achieva Credit Union and the Florida Orchestra.

The case for the tax

Beth Rawlins, who chairs Citizens for Pinellas Schools, a political committee advocating for the tax, explains it like this: The regular taxes Pinellas collects for schools go to Tallahassee and get equalized to help poorer counties, making Pinellas a "donor county." The special property tax, she says, supplements that money and stays in Pinellas. "If Pinellas County wants a better school system than Tallahassee is willing to fund, then we need to do it ourselves," she said.

Who opposes the tax

No organized opposition has come forward.

The case against it

Former School Board chairwoman Nancy Bostock opposed the tax in 2004 and remains against it. "I'm not voting for an additional tax for an organization that already has ($1.5) billion," she said, referring to the school district's total budget.

Keeping track of the money

The Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee meets in public every 90 days to pore over expenditures. Usually, district representatives share long-term plans on how to use the funds and the committee reviews expenditures to make sure they're in compliance with the ballot language. Detailed reports from every year the tax has been in existence are posted on the school district's website, pcsb.org. Committee members include representatives from the public and private sectors; the Pinellas Realtor Organization; the Florida PTA; and the Pinellas Education Foundation are all represented.

Where to find it on the ballot

Look for it after the cluster of county charter amendment questions. It's labeled "referendum question."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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