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Ballot measures in Pinellas, Hernando would boost teacher pay

School officials in both counties say a special property tax is needed to supplement state funding that has not kept up with their needs.

If school district leaders across Florida have a regular complaint, it’s that the funding they receive doesn’t cover the costs of all they must do.

The state approves mandates without money attached, restricts how money can be spent, and controls local property tax rates. Added dollars come largely through increases in enrollment.

To give themselves added flexibility, districts throughout the state have turned to local voters. In the past few election cycles, whether asked to increase sales taxes for capital projects or property taxes for general operations, voters have consistently delivered.

The Pinellas and Hernando county school boards are hopeful that winning streak continues in November. Each has placed a property tax referendum on the ballot to raise money for teacher pay raises and other needs. With the coronavirus pandemic having gutted the economy in recent months, it could be a tougher ask than in other years.

But leaders from both districts said they have faith that voters see value in the schools and the need to keep them competitive. The fact that they have positive track records helps, they added.

Pinellas first won approval in 2004 for its tax of 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. It promised to put most of the money — closing in on $50 million a year — toward teacher pay, with the remainder supporting arts education, reading programs and classroom technology.

Voters renewed the measure three times with growing levels of support. By law, such taxes expire every four years.

As they aim for a fourth extension, leaders point to the $5,231 average annual supplement that teachers receive with the money, as well as to booming music and art activities and the district’s recent purchase of thousands of computers as it strives to have one device for every student — something more critical now than ever as much schooling is taking place online.

The initiative has performed “beautifully,” said Mitch Lee, past chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, who has sat on the district’s tax oversight committee since 2005.

“It allows teacher salaries to be competitive with the state and any other districts that might draw good teachers,” Lee said. “And, quite frankly, we wouldn’t have a lot of programs at all without referendum funding. The budget from the state is really not adequate.”

Pinellas civil rights activist Ric Davis, who leads the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, said his group has routinely looked at how the money gets distributed, with specific attention to equity.

“It has been spent properly,” Davis said. “I think the district has in recent years been trying their very best to make sure there’s at least no glaring disproportionality in the way they allocate the dollars.”

Reagan Miller, an officer in the Pinellas County Council of PTAs, noted that the money stays local, and it has funded items such as the technology coordinators who have risen to key positions during distance learning. Also a member of the oversight committee, Miller contended the average cost per household, about $7.15 per month, is worth the benefit to education and the local economy that it generates.

If there is any opposition, it hasn’t been organized or vocal. Groups in support have included chambers of commerce and neighborhood associations, among others.

“I don’t know who wouldn’t support it,” Miller said. “The only thing I ever see is positive.”

Hernando County is asking for its first local-option property tax increase, $1 per $1,000 of taxable value, to raise about $11 million a year.

That doesn’t mean the district offers no historical perspective on tax revenue spending. The district has won voter approval, most recently in 2015, for a sales tax to support construction and maintenance projects.

It ran on a campaign of “promises made, promises kept,” suggesting the district used the money as presented. Its oversight committee has reported more than 400 projects completed since 2016, with about 60 percent toward replacing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Supporters of the new referendum said voters should expect the same fidelity with this revenue, which is needed for different things. The district has pledged half the money to boost staff pay, a quarter for school safety improvements and mental health services, and the rest for technology and career education programs.

“You can’t use a sales tax for salaries,” observed retired principal Sue Stoops, co-chair of the political action committee formed to back the referendum.

She noted that Hernando’s state-mandated property tax rate has declined $1.595 per $1,000 over the past decade, while its teacher pay has lagged behind most of its neighbors.

Its starting teacher salary is $41,456.

As a result, Stoops said, keeping teachers in Hernando has proven challenging. She spoke of her own past faculty members asking for references to leave the profession so they could earn higher wages.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said.

Hernando County relies on its quality of life to attract and keep residents, co-chairman Sam Wagoner said. But it’s tough to grow the economy, he said, with about half of residents commuting out of county for jobs and property values lower than in other suburban communities.

By paying higher wages, the district can improve its academic successes, which has economic implications, Wagoner said.

“Teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible,” Stoops said. “So we have to have the best of the best.”

If voters approve the tax, Hernando would begin collecting revenue in March 2021. It would have an independent task force to hold the district accountable for the spending.

• • •

Find out more

Visit pcsb.org/referendum for information on the Pinellas County tax.

Visit hernandoschools.org/our-district/referendum-2020 for information on the Hernando County tax.

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