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Bid to raise teacher pay gets a late, lean start

But so far, there is little opposition to the referendum asking for a property tax increase.

By MONIQUE FIELDS
Published October 3, 2004

The campaign for a referendum that would raise teacher pay in Pinellas County has been unusually quiet.

The reasons: A late start and little money.

"If you had your druthers, you would start by building a financial war chest," says Bill Heller, chairman of Citizens for Pinellas Schools, which is seeking a property tax increase to raise teacher salaries. "We started with zero budget, and we didn't start that long ago."

Months of stop-and-go efforts by the School Board whittled away precious time needed to sock away campaign cash. With about four weeks left until Election Day, Heller and a group of organizers are quietly making the rounds, seeking support from teachers, parents and business leaders.

Heller has been in place only since August. Since then, Citizens for Pinellas Schools has raised about $37,000.

That's a fraction of the money raised for referendum campaigns in Pasco and Sarasota counties, where voters recently approved tax increases to help education.

Representatives of those fights say they are astounded Pinellas is moving forward with so little time and money.

"Boy, God bless them if they pull it off," said Ray Gadd, the point man for the "Penny for Pasco" campaign.

* * *

The Pinellas referendum asks voters to increase their property tax by 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value. For a home assessed at $150,000, with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the tax will cost an additional $62.50 a year.

The measure would raise an estimated $26-million for four years. The majority of the money would be used to boost teacher pay, bringing average salaries that hover around $40,000 more in line with the national average of $46,000. The remaining money would be used to preserve art, music and reading programs.

Incoming schools superintendent Clayton Wilcox has endorsed the referendum. So has a coalition of Pinellas County PTAs. But the School Board has stayed conspicuously quiet.

It voted 6-1 to put the issue on the ballot, but has never endorsed it.

Board member Nancy Bostock opposes the referendum. Board member Mary Brown supports it, and along with chairwoman Jane Gallucci and board member Lee Benjamin, has donated money to the cause.

But so far, they have done little to actively promote it.

Heller said pushing for a tax increase puts elected School Board members in a precarious position. Board members say they want the community to decide and don't want to be out front on the issue.

That's a sound decision, said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

"If there's a group out there other than the School Board, it's better received because it doesn't look self-serving," he said. So far, there is little organized opposition to the referendum. And a recent poll by the Pinellas Realtor Organization showed strong support among registered voters.

Heller is counting on that kind of support to offset his twin handicaps: time and money.

* * *

In Pasco and Sarasota counties, for example, supporters raised more than $200,000 for their campaigns and enlisted an army of volunteers who worked for several months. Both also brought their referendums to voters in March elections, not a high-turnout general election such as the one the School Board has chosen.

Sarasota's 1-mill tax increase is generating an additional $30-million a year and will sunset in 2006. Pasco schools, which are sharing part of their money with the county and other municipalities, stand to gain $196-million over the course of 10 years.

In Pasco, supporters argued that the money was needed to help schools keep pace with growth. The district's five board members lobbied hard for the sales tax increase.

"I would ask people every place I went, the grocery store, library, wherever," said Marge Whaley, who is seeking another term on the Pasco School Board. "If you're going to be in public office, I feel like you have to defend what you feel is right for your kids."

In Sarasota, School Board members took a back seat to Citizens for Better Schools, which did most of the campaigning. That group gave more than 350 speeches in six months, and members say they are skeptical Pinellas can cover the same amount of ground in less time.

"You're just going to have to have a lot of voters who really like their school system if it's going to pass," said Carl Weinrich, who led Sarasota's campaign.

Campaign organizers insist Pinellas is different.

The Pinellas School Board is the largest employer in the county and touches the lives of 112,000 children and families every day. And county residents have historically been open to taxing themselves. The successful passage of the Penny for Pinellas tax in 1997 is one example.

University of South Florida professor Darryl Paulson said he isn't so sure Penny for Pinellas is the best model for the school referendum.

Penny for Pinellas had a little something for everyone, he said, and there is a limit to how much residents will tax themselves.

There are plenty of unknowns in the coming election, said Paulson, who is writing a book on Florida politics.

One scenario: A Republican groundswell goes to the polls to support President Bush in the presidential race and Mel Martinez in his fight for a U.S. Senate seat. Both candidates oppose tax increases and are likely to draw voters with the same beliefs.

"I think it's going to pass, but it's going to be a lot closer than people anticipate," Paulson said. Heller is optimistic. His group is targeting 40,000 absentee voters with a message that the county needs higher pay to attract and retain quality teachers. But with so little campaign money, television and other advertising is unlikely.

Some numbers are on the district's side. In the last five years, 18 Florida school districts have passed a referendum of some kind. Only three have failed, says Blanton, of the Florida School Boards Association.

"October is going to be a busy month for us - big and busy," Heller said.

[Last modified October 3, 2004, 00:56:27]


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