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Schools wary of tax revolt

A Pinellas tax is up for renewal next year and the district is trying to gauge ...

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published March 4, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG -Two and a half years after Pinellas voters approved a special property tax for schools, district officials are getting curious and more than a little nervous.

Would voters approve the measure again, given the public's grumpy mood on taxes?

The question has Pinellas educators looking ahead to next week's vote on the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. Officials say the outcome of the March 13 referendum could help gauge how voters will respond next year when the school district asks them to consider renewing the special property tax, which was approved in 2004.

At stake is about $40-million a year in revenue that the school system has come to rely on. The money has been used to make Pinellas teacher salaries the highest in the Tampa Bay region, and to enhance reading, arts and technology programs.

If voters allow it to expire after four years, district finance officials predict dire times starting in the 2009-10 fiscal year. Their sinking budget predictions have been dubbed the "Titanic models."

Under most of their scenarios, teachers would be in for a pay cut. Two versions would require district employees to pay a larger share of their health insurance premiums. The possibilities also include major budget cuts across the district and pay cuts that could affect all employees - not just teachers.

Pinellas' 8,000 teachers make up the lion's share of the district's full-time workforce. The tax's impact on individual salaries varies depending on years of service and level of education. But, on average, it adds nearly $3,400 to a teacher salary.

"There's no way that we would ever be able to retain the teachers we have," said School Board member Carol Cook, pondering the Titanic models. "We'll have them feeling unappreciated and just walking out the door."

Polling numbers show Penny for Pinellas enjoying strong support, but district officials say that doesn't necessarily bode well for the school referendum.

They acknowledge there's a big difference between a sales tax and a property tax. A sales tax pulls in broader participation from visitors to the area, and taxpayers can control how much they pay. A property tax offers no control for taxpayers who want to keep their homes, and is directly paid by a narrower swath of the public.

The Penny "is a much easier tax to pass than the property tax," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, which helped the school tax cruise with 64 percent of the vote in 2004.

Moore and others say next week's election will be more instructive if Penny for Pinellas fails or passes by a slimmer margin than expected.

"That signals that the taxpayer revolt may have caused a lack of faith in government," he said.

"It is something to watch," said School Board member Peggy O'Shea, who has worked as a political consultant. "If (the Penny) fails, then I think we've got a real problem. If it passes, it indicates people are looking at it separately from their other concerns."

Those "other concerns" began to mount after the general election in November 2004.

Four hurricanes criss-crossed Florida that year, followed by a second wave of storms in 2005. Insurance premiums skyrocketed and rising home values led to higher property tax bills, all of which led to a taxpayer revolt last year that has state officials scrambling for a fix.

Even more important than the Penny vote will be the upcoming legislative session in Tallahassee, where lawmakers are toying with major changes to Florida's tax structure, said Beth Rawlins, a political consultant who worked with the teachers union to get the 2004 measure passed.

"There are so many things up in the air right now, it's crazy," she said.

Until then, she said, the district would be well-advised to do a better job of promoting what the tax has done, not only boosting teacher salaries but expanding music and visual art programs, adding computer labs at many schools and bolstering efforts across the district to improve reading skills.

"If they had misspent the funds, it would be a huge story. But they haven't," said Rawlins, noting that a citizen advisory committee oversees how the tax is spent.

"I think, by and large, people don't mind paying taxes when they understand the benefit being received for it."

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox says the district is planning a program to let the public know more about what the tax has done. But he's keeping it modest, he said, arguing that the district shouldn't spend taxpayer money too freely on promoting a tax.

Later this spring, the teachers union plans to begin polling to gauge support for a renewal, said Moore, the group's director.

The tax is 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value. For a home assessed at $250,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption, it costs $87.50 a year or about $7 a month.

If it's cousin, the Penny for Pinellas, doesn't do well "then we better really sit back and re-group," said Cook, the School Board member. "The good thing about it is we're looking at it, we're preparing for it and there are some options."

[Last modified March 3, 2007, 21:08:58]


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