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Tax for schools swivels on trust

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published March 2, 2004

SPRING HILL - John Druzbick stood before the room full of retirees and asked for their money.

"We need classrooms, new schools," the Hernando County School Board member said.

The Hernando County School District expects enrollment to rise 53 percent over the next decade. Rather than borrow money for new schools, board members want voters on March 9 to approve a 10-year, half-percent increase in the local sales tax.

Yes, Druzbick used the word "tax" in his speech. Several times. And an audience filled with people whose children graduated long ago did not object.

"A kid has got to be educated," retiree Robert Burns said after the session.

That sentiment is what educators across Florida are counting on as they increasingly turn to tax referendums to deal with the financial pressures of rising enrollments and a constitutional requirement to reduce class sizes.

Hernando, Pasco and Osceola county residents will vote on tax measures March 9. On that same day, the Pinellas School Board will decide whether to ask voters in November to support a 1-mill increase in their property tax rate for four years. Referendum proposals also are being discussed in Hillsborough and other school districts.

Sometimes, the strategy works. Voters in 14 counties have approved local option sales taxes for education since the state began allowing it in 1995.

"School boards are not afraid to go to the community and say, "If you want the best, we need you to help us,"' said Ruth Melton, director of legislative affairs for the Florida School Boards Association.

The right sales pitch, however, is crucial.

"Folks are willing to vote themselves taxes" because they value public education, said John McKay, a former Senate president who now leads Floridians Against Inequities in Rates, a group seeking to overhaul the state's tax structure.

"But it's not an easy sell," McKay said.

Tom Nolan, a political adviser who has worked on school referendums in several counties, learned that last year in Brevard County.

Nolan was working for passage of a sales tax increase that would pay for new school construction in Brevard. On the weekend before the election, polls showed the tax was likely to pass.

But that Saturday, Nolan said, a local television station reported that the Brevard School Board had misappropriated about $1-million in federal money. The referendum went down in flames.

Nolan said the defeat offers several lessons. While voters support schools, he said, they want assurances that the district can be trusted. They also want a clear spending plan and an oversight system.

Brevard had the last two, Nolan said, but it failed the credibility test.

While campaigning for Hernando's tax proposal, Druzbick often reminds audiences about promises the School Board made and subsequently kept after it won approval for a local sales tax six years ago.

The board pledged to build a new technical high school without incurring debt, and it did. It also told voters the tax would not last forever.

It expired Dec. 31.

Druzbick said he hopes voters will give the district another chance with another tax. This time, it would run 10 years, generating about $65-million to help pay for six new schools.

The board is not getting a free pass. The county's Republican Executive Committee has launched an antitax campaign, arguing that the school district did not control costs on what some call the "palatial" technical high school.

Party leaders also have complained that the board recently borrowed $30-million to build another new school without waiting to see whether the tax passes.

School Board members, all registered Republicans, have repudiated the committee's stance. They say the committee refused to listen to explanations before jumping into the fray.

The tax campaign in Pasco County is being waged nine years after voters overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to raise the sales tax solely for school construction. Superintendent John Long decided then that the district would never go it alone again.

"We didn't have a lot to offer senior citizens to come out and vote," Long said of the 1995 vote.

This time, school officials are combining road and safety projects with a plan to relieve school crowding. Long hopes the mix will attract a variety of constituents. Penny for Pasco would raise about $437-million over 10 years, with the county and school district each getting 45 percent and the municipalities splitting the rest.

Still, enough opposition exists to fuel an antitax effort. Most worrisome to referendum supporters are residents such as Pat Burke, who spoke at a recent forum on the issue.

"There is no doubt we need this penny," said Burke, who praised the school district for its thorough list of school construction proposals. But Burke said she was turned off by the proposed road projects and criticized the pro-Penny literature for being one-sided.

"People have a tough time saying, "I don't want to do something for kids,"' Long said. If they plan to vote no, he said, they often couch their argument as being pro-child but antitax.

Sarasota leaders learned the value of trust in 2000, after voters roundly defeated that district's first try for a 1-mill property tax increase.

Supporters did extensive polling to determine exactly why the measure went down. Then they put together hundreds of public presentations.

"There were seven or eight myths about the school system that were totally unfounded," said Carl Weinrich, the campaign's co-chairman. "When we gave them the facts of why it is important to have a good public education system and the benefits of it, people were more than willing."

In 2002, 63 percent of voters backed the tax hike which, unlike a sales tax, can be used for general operations.

Pinellas County school and community leaders see Sarasota as a model as they consider a referendum that would let them raise teacher pay and avoid program cuts.

Beth Rawlins, chairwoman of Citizens for Pinellas Schools, said her group is studying the community's views of schools. It also is crafting talking points to persuade, among others, seniors and the business community.

If approved, the 1-mill property tax increase would be used for general expenses such as salaries, and would help pay for non-core courses such as art. By law, the tax increase would expire in four years. The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association has been a driving force behind the idea.

Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook said she thinks the question will get onto the November ballot. But she has concerns about using a referendum.

The state is supposed to provide adequate funding for public education, Cook said, yet districts are having to kick in.

"So philosophically, I have problems," Cook said. "But I can't be philosophical about need."

School districts were not supposed to be in this fix.

Three decades ago, Florida lawmakers reworked the state's school financing formulas to ensure children in wealthier communities did not receive a better-funded education than poorer kids. The state stopped providing money based on numbers of classrooms and instead distributed funds on a per-student basis.

The state provided the bulk of money. Local school property tax rates were capped.

But over the years, lawmakers made it easier for districts to seek local sales tax and property tax hikes. Districts are increasingly responding as they struggle with what they consider shortfalls in state funding.

"People who want to improve (schools) have to find ways to do it," said Daniel Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. "It's a good sign, at least, of a community willing to invest in education."

Smith agrees that voters tend to support school tax initiatives more than other government requests. He says that's largely because the tax is targeted toward teachers rather than bureaucrats, and for a specific purpose.

"But not all communities are going to be willing to do that," Smith said.

That's what worries Druzbick, the Hernando School Board member campaigning for a tax increase. He and other board members stump anywhere they can, from senior citizen groups to rotary clubs.

"The fact is, we are overcrowded in our schools now," he said. "We are looking at every option that is out there."

- Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.

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