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Pinellas will ask voters to renew its special property tax for schools

The tax has been approved by large margins every four years since 2004. This time, it’s likely to appear on the March ballot.

LARGO — Leaders in Pinellas County public schools plan to ask voters for a fifth time in March to pay a special property tax in support of students and teachers.

Approved every four years since 2004, the tax has raised $477 million to supplement teacher salaries, fuel art, music and reading classes, and update technology.

If voters were to approve the measure again in 2020, the money would be used for the same purposes. But for first time, the district would be required to share the money with Pinellas charter schools, after a decision by the Florida Legislature in April.

Another shift is that the item will likely come to voters March 17, rather than in the fall as it has in the past. That way, the district can avoid the "political clutter” of the upcoming presidential election, said Beth Rawlins, the political consultant who has helped shepherd the tax toward approval in previous years.

During an impassioned speech at Tuesday’s School Board workshop, Rawlins said the tax has made a huge difference to the school system.

“We have an amazing success story to tell,” she said, adding that the funds raised by the referendum allow Pinellas schools to offer students the “gift of opportunity, the ability to succeed and to be anything that they want to be.”

As a result of the referendum, Pinellas property owners pay an extra 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value, an amount beyond the regular property taxes for schools. Last year, the tax cost the average homeowner about $78, Rawlins said.

It also raised $41 million for Pinellas classrooms, and teachers each took home added pay of nearly $4,200.

At the same time, the district has beefed up reading programs and expanded classroom libraries. Kids have visited art museums for free, and teachers have been given updated technology, like iPads and interactive whiteboards.

For those points to be the focus as supporters try to garner support for the referendum, it can’t come to a vote at the time residents are picking a president in the fall of 2020, Rawlins said. It would take too much money to fight for space in people’s minds and inboxes.

“November is going to be a political circus,” Rawlins said. “I fear that our referendum will get lost.”

School Board members agreed, thanking Rawlins for her longtime work to secure money for Pinellas schools. Chairwoman Rene Flowers called her efforts “superb, fabulous." Member Eileen Long said: “You have my support all the way.”

Pointing to the 2016 election, when 76 percent of voters supported the referendum, superintendent Mike Grego said he expects a similar outcome next year.

“I think our community will continue to understand the importance of education,” he said. And with the item coming to voters in March, the district won’t have to "communicate the message above all the noise.”

Multiple votes by the School Board and County Commission must happen before the request to add the referendum to the March ballot reaches the Supervisor of Elections Office, Rawlins said.

According to the ballot language proposed, referendum revenues collected by charter schools would be proportionate to student enrollment. That money would essentially "come off the top” of the total amount raised, then the district would distribute the rest at its discretion, School Board attorney David Koperski said.

Though allowing charters to cash in on referendum dollars was heavily debated by Florida lawmakers, Grego said he isn’t bothered.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “We want to support all children in Pinellas County.”

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.