A special property tax for Pinellas County public schools has paid dividends in classrooms since it was first approved in 2004. The modest tax enhances arts programs, helps retain teachers and outfits schools with new technology while being a bargain for taxpayers. The program is up for renewal again, and voters should approve it for another four years.
Pinellas voters first approved the half-mill property tax following state funding cuts in 2004. They renewed it again in 2008 and 2012 by large margins. This year's extension would follow the same rules for how the money is spent: 80 percent earmarked for stipends for teachers, who earn less than their counterparts in other large counties; and 20 percent dedicated to music, art and reading programs and to buying technology. The property tax is 50 cents on every $1,000 of taxable value. For the median Pinellas home worth about $180,000 that qualifies for a $25,000 homestead exemption, the cost is $77.50 annually.
The referendum ensures that the tax dollars enhance education, not take the place of state funding. A seven-member committee called the Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee, an advisory group that meets publicly four times a year, monitors how the tax money is spent. Committee members visit each school and report on the distribution of funds in the "About Us" section of pcsb.org, under "Referendum." But the real results are in Pinellas classrooms.
Because of these tax dollars, all Pinellas middle schools and high schools have arts computer labs and 24 elementary schools offer digital art; sheet music, instruments, paint, paper and easels are supplied; the strings program has tripled in participation; instrument rental fees are waived for students who can't afford them; band uniforms have been purchased for all high schools; and thousands of kids have gotten to take field trips. Elementary students get extra weeks of reading instruction to help them read at grade level. The money also provides supplies and training for the district's highly successful summer bridge program. Students across the district have access to e-readers, laptops, Kindles and e-books, and every school gets $2,000 a year for new books. The tax also provides all classroom teachers with about $3,800 annually in supplemental pay, which helps the district remain competitive in recruiting and keeping high-quality teachers.
Students who entered the school system in 2004, when the tax first passed, are just now graduating. That means many Pinellas families have never known schools without the benefit of this extra local funding. Without it, arts, music and reading would suffer. The technology, books and supplies that allow hands-on learning could disappear or be cut drastically. Teachers would lose money and be harder to recruit.
The tax is a worthwhile, proven investment in Pinellas schools. On the Pinellas referendum for the extension of the half-mill property tax for public schools, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting yes.