The middle of a pandemic is not the ideal moment for elected officials to vote to put a tax referendum on the ballot. Yet the Pinellas School Board has to do exactly that Tuesday so voters can renew an existing special property tax in November that for years has elevated the quality of public schools. The timing is unfortunate, but voters have repeatedly offered strong support for this tax and recognize the remarkable value it provides to students and classrooms throughout the county.
There isn’t any wiggle room in the timing of the re-approval of the half-mill property tax that voters first approved in 2004. It was re-approved by overwhelming margins in 2008, 2012 and 2016 — and it is due for another re-approval this year. The appropriate election for the referendum is the November general election, when there should be the greatest voter turnout. As it turns out, both the March presidential primary election and the August primary election would have been even more problematic than usual because of the impact of the coronavirus, which discourages voters from going to the polls.
If anything, COVID-19 and the closure of schools for the rest of the academic year has shown just how important this money is for students, When learning went virtual in March, Pinellas County Schools said they expected to have handed out 15,000 electronic devices to students who may not have otherwise had access at home without this property tax that paid for the devices. Schools are the life line for so many of these students, especially when they are confronted with a crisis. Offering them more resources — not less — is crucial.
When schools re-open, it will remain important for teachers, students and parents to have the resources they have become accustomed to having as a result of the special property tax. Since 2004, the tax has generated $477 million for the district, which is dedicated to teacher salaries, art, music and technology. Last year, the tax generated $41 million. Going forward, a revised state law requires that charter schools will get a share of the money for the first time to use in the same way that traditional public schools use the money.
It is more difficult to advocate for a tax referendum in this economy, but this is an existing tax that gives back directly to the community. This is also a different situation than transportation tax referendums that the county commissions in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties responsibly decided not to put on the November ballot because of the economic uncertainty triggered by the pandemic.
Hillsborough has an existing transportation sales tax that is being collected but not spent because of a legal challenge pending before the Florida Supreme Court. In this environment, there was no public support for putting a replacement tax on the November ballot in case the current tax is overturned by the court. In Pinellas, it would have been difficult if not impossible to sell voters on an entirely new transportation tax with so many families and businesses struggling financially.
The Pinellas special property tax for public schools is a different case. It has an established record, a clear benefit, consistently strong voter support and faces a deadline to be extended. The school board should vote this week to put the re-approval on the November ballot, and it will deserve a strong public campaign in the fall. Lifting up our students lifts us all.
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