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PINELLAS SCHOOL TAX REFERENDUM

Raising teachers' salaries: A proposal would bring teachers' pay closer to the national average and finance other programs.

THOMAS TOBIN
Published October 26, 2004

Pinellas voters face a tough question: Do Florida public schools have enough money?

That's the core issue before the electorate as they consider a proposed property tax increase for Pinellas schools.

The measure on next Tuesday's ballot asks voters whether the property tax should be raised by 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value, primarily to pay for teacher raises.

For a home assessed at $150,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the tax would cost an extra $62.50 a year, or $5.21 a month.

The tax would last four years, generating about $26-million a year. Eighty percent of it would go toward the School Board's goal of bringing teacher salaries closer to the national average of $49,000.

The remaining 20 percent would go to technology, arts, music and reading programs. An independent citizens group would monitor how the money is spent.

At present, Pinellas' 8,200 teachers earn an average of about $41,000 a year. One-third of them earn less than $35,000. Twenty-seven percent earn more than $50,000.

The School Board approved the ballot measure 6-1, arguing that Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature have vastly underfunded public schools - failing to keep pace with health insurance premiums and other spiraling costs.

The governor and legislators have decided to pay for a constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes without raising taxes.

The amendment means Pinellas must hire 100 more teachers each year to meet new pupil-teacher ratios. That doesn't include the 600 teachers the district must hire each year to fill normal vacancies.

Pinellas says it has managed its finances well, considering the tough financial climate. But skeptics say the district has yet to prove the need for the new tax.

School Board member Nancy Bostock, who voted against the measure, has argued for a comprehensive financial review of the district.

The tax also would expire after four years and could create a budget crisis because by then teachers would have become accustomed to higher salaries supported by the initial measure. Supporters say the district would use the four years to lobby the state to increase funding for education.

At present, Pinellas teachers earn more than teachers in the other four Tampa Bay area counties. The measure would raise Pinellas salaries an average of $2,500 a year.

Proponents, however, say the issue is keeping salaries competitive as Pinellas seeks teaching talent from a dwindling pool of recruits across the nation. Pinellas teachers have had years of minimal raises.

"You get into a kind of facetious argument on what you can live on," said Bill Heller, chairman of Citizens for Pinellas Schools, a group promoting the measure. "They live on it and they subsist on it. But I would ask, "Is that appropriate for a society like ours to accept that?"'

Approval Of An Additional One-Half Mill Ad Valorem Tax For School District Operating Expenses

Shall the Pinellas County school district ad valorem millage be increased by a total of one-half mill for necessary operating expenses including funds to recruit and retain quality teachers; preserve reading programs and music and art classes; and provide up-to-date textbooks and technology beginning July 1, 2005, and ending four fiscal years later on June 30, 2009, with oversight of these expenditures by an independent citizens financial oversight committee?

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