1. Opinion

Column: Robbing Pinellas teachers and kids to subsidize charter schools

Pinellas voters should pay particular attention to the Florida Legislature over the next two weeks. Lawmakers are poised to cut every classroom teacher's pay in Pinellas County by $325. They are positioned to cut funding for the school district's art, music, reading and technology programs by more than a half-million dollars. They are prepared to defy the intent of Pinellas voters who tax themselves to pay for those improvements to our schools.

Of course, the legislators behind HB 7123 don't describe their intentions that way. They argue they are just being fair by requiring school districts to share special property tax money approved by the voters with charter schools, which receive public money but are privately run. But those cuts to teachers' pay and popular programs for students in Pinellas would be triggered by this legislation that is fundamentally unfair.

In the face of miserly legislative funding for public schools, Pinellas voters took matters into their own hands nearly 15 years ago and raised local property taxes to pay for improvements in our local classrooms. They voted in 2004 to voluntarily tax themselves one-half mill to pay for art, music, textbooks, technology, reading programs and enhanced teacher pay. There is strict oversight by an independent citizens committee. Voters renewed that funding in 2008, 2012 and 2016 by large margins.

The special Pinellas property tax produced $41.6 million for our local public schools for the 2018-19 school year. We use this money exactly as voters prescribed, and the results are spectacular. Students now learn on the up-to-date technology required for tomorrow's jobs. Teacher pay is modestly supplemented to retain the best and the brightest in our classrooms. Band and strings programs thrive. We've restored remedial reading coaches, and we've implemented the Summer Bridge program for students who need extra help.

Now legislators want to take some of the money that pays for those programs away from us and hand it to the for-profit companies that often run charter schools.

These are your local tax dollars, already at work in our classrooms. The House bill would take $2.7 million from our Pinellas district schools and hand it over to privately operated charter schools beginning next school year. Art, music, reading and technology programs would suffer cuts of $540,000 a year. And $2.2 million in referendum-generated teacher pay would be funneled to charter schools, forcing a $325 pay cut on every classroom teacher in Pinellas district schools.

In 15 years of advocating for this local option funding, I've made hundreds of presentations to citizens groups. Not once has a voter suggested sharing the revenue with charter schools. Instead, I have repeatedly been asked to assure voters that the money would not go to charters. But HB 7123 makes a mockery of voters' intentions.

And what about our oversight provision? For 14 years a citizens group has met quarterly, monitoring the referendum dollars and ensuring strict compliance with the voters' wishes. These volunteers pore over the district's finances and produce an annual report that tracks every dollar of your tax money. But charter school books are not as open to scrutiny. How will privately operated charter schools use our tax dollars? And how will we know?

More than 335,000 Pinellas voters supported the last renewal of the special school property tax, which won 76 percent of the vote. Now the Legislature wants to usurp our wishes and give our tax dollars to charter schools. They should keep their hands off our local tax dollars instead of picking our pockets.

Beth Rawlins is chair of Citizens for Pinellas Schools, the political committee that advocates for the special property tax for the Pinellas County School District that voters have approved in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.