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Voters approve higher tax to help teachers, schools

The property tax increase will generate $26-million annually, mostly to boost salaries.

THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published November 3, 2004

LARGO - Pinellas voters on Tuesday resoundingly approved a property tax increase to raise teacher pay and bolster programs in public schools, a result that cheered supporters in several ways.

For a sometimes troubled School Board that wavered for months before finally placing the measure on the ballot, the vote was a solid accomplishment.

For Clayton Wilcox, who on Monday became the school district's new superintendent, it signaled a bright beginning. The additional $26-million a year in revenue from the new tax will give him some breathing room when he crafts his first budget.

Teachers saw it as a vote of confidence in a year when soaring medical insurance premiums, small salary increases and increased pressure from government accountability programs combined to bring down morale.

Supporters said the measure also sent a message to state lawmakers that Floridians are willing to spend more for schools.

"We did it," School Board chairman Jane Gallucci told a cheering crowd of about 75 supporters gathered at the Largo offices of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing the district's 8,000 teachers.

"What a great message to our staff and to our future recruits that this community cares about you and cares about our 113,000 kids," she said, ending her remarks through tears.

The vote came in a week when Pinellas taxpayers received their property tax bills in the mail, a reminder that the public school millage accounts for the largest single portion of what they pay. But as returns flowed in Tuesday night, support for the measure never dipped below 60 percent.

The new tax will add 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed valuation starting with next year's bill. Eighty percent of the money will be used to bring teacher salaries closer to the national average of $49,000. The current average is about $41,000, though more than 25 percent of the county's teachers make less than $35,000.

Starting next school year, teachers will see an average salary bump of about $3,200 when the new money is added to the usual increases for years of service.

The remaining 20 percent of the money - about $5-million a year - will go to preserve art, music and reading programs and to buy more textbooks and computers. The tax expires after four years.

District officials had said that such sacred cows as magnet programs and athletics would have been targeted for possible cuts if the referendum had failed.

Political consultant Beth Rawlins, who ran the campaign in support of the measure, said she tapped into the network of parents, organizations and businesses who already support the school system and were aware of its budget problems.

That enabled her to mount a formidable campaign in a short time with a small budget of $50,000. A countywide campaign normally would cost more than $300,000, she said.

"All you had to do was provide people with a solution and they were perfectly willing to help," she said. "The schools are just an inherent part of the community."

One of the major messages of the campaign, directed at seniors and tax-sensitive residents, was that the school system affects the county's quality of life.

"I talked to senior groups," said campaign chairman Bill Heller. "They were all very positive. And you always had a retired teacher or two."

School Board member Nancy Bostock, who cast the lone vote against placing the referendum on the ballot, said she doesn't like to see taxes go up but said it might help the district "get our house in order" financially.

"It's an incredible victory for a campaign that is only three months old," said Jade Moore, executive director of the teachers union. "I think the teachers will get up tomorrow morning feeling really good about their community and the kids they teach."

Wilcox called the outcome "a very powerful endorsement" of Pinellas teachers by county residents. He also told the crowd at union headquarters it confirmed that he and his family made "exactly the right choice to come here."

Pinellas is the largest Florida county so far to pass such a tax for school operating expenses. Gallucci said the county's success would spur other Florida districts to follow suit.

"This is just the beginning," she said.

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