Renew this tax. It benefits students in Pinellas. | Column
For 16 years, Pinellas residents have taxed themselves for the future. They should renew this tax to benefit our students, writes the head of the Pinellas Education Foundation.

As Election Day nears, dominated by the glare of a presidential race and the uncertainty of a pandemic, it is vital that Pinellas County voters not lose sight of a critically important initiative as they cast their ballots. “Referendum Question,” as it is known on the ballot, represents a key to the continued success of Pinellas County Schools — and a crucial, ongoing investment in our students, our teachers and our community.

It is hard to miss the referendum’s long, technical title immediately following the state constitutional questions on the ballot: “Approval of the Continuation of the One-half Mill Ad Valorem Tax for School Operating Expenses.” But make no mistake: Voting yes should be a no-brainer as an essential benefit to public education in Pinellas County.

Charles M. Harris is chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pinellas Education Foundation.
Charles M. Harris is chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pinellas Education Foundation. [ Provided ]

The referendum is a clear-cut win all the way around. The revenues it generates — $44.5 million every year — have allowed the school district to support, recruit and retain high-quality teachers, create stronger reading programs, invigorate visual arts programs, revitalize performing arts programs, and provide the latest technology for public school classrooms.

To meet the new challenges posed by virtual learning, referendum funds have made it possible for the school district to provide laptops to students who might otherwise not have access to them — enormously impactful considering that some 60 percent of Pinellas students come from economically disadvantaged households. Furthermore, those funds paid for school technology experts, and gave teachers a comfort level with software, making the transition to online instruction during the pandemic spring lockdown nearly seamless.

These types of benefits, fueled by referendum funding, have helped elevate the school district to among the best in Florida. It is why Pinellas voters have overwhelmingly approved the proposal every four years since the half-mill property tax was first approved in 2004 — with the distribution of funds overseen by an independent committee to ensure every penny support students and teachers.

And it is why we at the Pinellas Education Foundation are squarely focused on advocating for the Pinellas Referendum. Indeed, the initiative is rooted at the very core of our work as a nonprofit coalition of community and business leaders, committed to supporting and building excellent public education.

Renewing the referendum will not only continue to enrich our students and prepare them for multiple pathways for success after high school — our foundation’s fundamental vision — but also enhance local businesses and employers with a better-trained workforce while ultimately benefitting the area in which we live.

Every Pinellas resident can be proud of the quality of education in the county’s public schools, and referendum funds make a critical difference in that regard. Just consider its value in these life-shaping educational categories:

• High-quality teachers: 80 percent of the referendum’s revenue supplements teacher salaries. In fact, teachers receive a supplement of $5,321 to their 2020-21 base salaries. That allows the district to keep and attract the best teachers in the state — pivotal in maintaining the educational heights the school system has achieved.

• Stronger reading programs: A literacy intervention program that aids struggling readers in grades K-2 and supports students in Pinellas elementary schools.

• Up-to-date textbooks and technology: Students throughout the district have access to computer labs and latest technology, which prepares them for college and careers.

• Preserving nationally recognized music and performing arts programs: The referendum supports robust arts education programs and supplies students with needed materials, with all schools receiving funding for music, theater and dance equipment, uniforms and more.

The infusion of referendum funds means the district has been able to hire talented music and arts teachers, provide upgraded sound systems in high school auditoriums, and purchase marching band uniforms, instruments, and smartboards in classrooms throughout the county. The aforementioned salary supplement has allowed the school system to not only hire and train the best teachers but to keep them.

But imagine if these funds go away. The result would be a hole that the school district could never fill with its own budget. The district would suddenly find itself at a huge disadvantage, with many of the assets that currently support our students and teachers jeopardized.

The average continuing cost of this referendum to a single-family Pinellas homeowner in 2019 was $85.85, or $7.15 a month, $6.15 monthly for condo owners. That seems like a small price in return for educational excellence. For that reason, we urge you to vote yes on the Pinellas Referendum — and keep our schools thriving.

Charles M. Harris is chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pinellas Education Foundation