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LARGO -- Later this month, Pinellas School Board members will begin discussing whether to ask voters to tax themselves to pay for higher teacher salaries.
Board members committed last summer to try to raise teacher salaries to the national average in three to five years. As the budget picture becomes increasingly grim, they have realized that they will need to find a new source of money to meet the goal.
A referendum could raise millions of dollars over four years. But putting a possible property tax increase to voters would require an organized campaign, which takes time and money. And how would the district continue to cover teacher salaries long-term if voters don't approve a second ballot measure four years later?
Pinellas' average teacher salary, based on the 2002-2003 contract, is $39,000. The national average is $45,800, and that amount increases annually by almost 3 percent.
The teachers union has argued that raising salaries to the national average would improve morale and retention rates.
Board member Mary Russell was frustrated Tuesday that the board is still discussing how to make the goal a reality. She argued that the board should begin pouring money into salaries next year.
The district is beginning to build a 2003-04 budget that would include 2 percent raises for teachers. To reach the goal in three years, salaries would have to jump 9 percent per year.
"You can't keep saying you're going to put it off," Russell said. "It's never going to be a good time."
Russell said the district should cut "fluff" from the budget. Superintendent Howard Hinesley said that even if cuts were made, the goal "absolutely can't be funded without a referendum."
Other board members agreed that money is too tight to begin dramatically raising teacher salaries now. They learned Tuesday that the district will have to cut a number of teacher aides to make up a $4-million shortfall. They will be offered other jobs within the district.