Teachers rev up tax push

A referendum to raise their pay will ask for a tax renewal next year in an antitax climate.

Published May 11, 2007

The Pinellas teachers union is gearing up for a referendum next year that will ask voters to renew a special property tax to benefit schools.

The group has commissioned a public opinion poll on the tax and soon will ask every teacher in the system to donate at least $100 to a political action committee, Citizens for Pinellas Schools, which will campaign for the tax.

Pinellas residents easily approved the tax in 2004 with 64 percent of the vote. But the anti-tax environment that has mushroomed over high insurance rates and rising property values is expected to make it a tougher sell in 2008.

"My suspicion is you can't think of a worse time to put this before the voters, " said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. No matter how meritorious the cause, he said, "voters are clearly fed up with the property tax situation in Florida."

In addition, organizers are finding it difficult to plan around the uncertainty over how the Legislature will change the state's tax structure in a special session next month.

All the more reason to start the campaign now, they say.

Might it be too early?

"No. Not if you want to win, " said Jade Moore, executive director of the union, known as the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

It's also not too early in a year when the presidential candidates already have debated twice and Florida has moved its primary up to next January, said Beth Rawlins, a Pinellas political consultant who led the 2004 tax campaign and will serve in the same role this time.

"The cycle has clearly accelerated, " she said.

The School Board has yet to set a date for the referendum. Possibilities include the general election ballot on Nov. 4, 2008, or the Sept. 2 primary preceding it.

The union's big head start contrasts sharply with the 2004 campaign, which lasted only three months after the School Board wavered about the tax and waited until July of that year to put it on the ballot.

The union's surge follows a recent effort by the school district to better publicize how the tax money is being spent. The district's Web site prominently features a detailed accounting of where the tax proceeds are going, including links to public documents from a committee that oversees the money.

Educating voters

The new feature, titled "Referendum Revealed, " details increases in teacher pay and improvements in arts programs, reading materials and the availability of computers in classrooms across the district.

"I think a lot of the discontent with property taxes has been that people have seen their taxes go up and they haven't seen the return in services, and the school tax is not like that, " Rawlins said. "They have gotten exactly what we told them they were going to get."

She said she thinks voters' desire for a strong school system will override concerns about high taxes, much as they did in 2004.

The tax is 50 cents on every $1, 000 of assessed value. The owner of a home valued at $200, 000 for taxing purposes, with a $25, 000 homestead exemption, pays $87.50 a year. That's on top of regular school taxes, which this year came to $1, 349.

Eighty percent of the proceeds from the special tax pay for teacher salary increases and the remaining 20 percent goes to arts, reading and technology programs.

In its first year, 2005, the tax raised $30.4-million. This fiscal year, it raised $36-million. For the fiscal year starting July 1, the total is expected to rise to more than $38-million.

The annual increases have been fueled by new construction and rising property values.

As a result, Pinellas' teacher salaries are the highest in the Tampa Bay area. Average teacher pay has increased from about $40, 000 before the referendum to about $46, 000 this year, a 15 percent bump.

The goal is to get Pinellas salaries more competitive nationally.

On average, teachers get about $100 each paycheck from the referendum, said Moore, the union head, describing the reasoning for asking them to contribute that amount to the campaign.

Since teachers benefit most from the tax, he said, the union decided to ask them for money before soliciting donations from others.

"Clearly, this is something that the teachers need to be behind, " said Rawlins.

The request comes as teachers head into the summer months, a time of second jobs and leaner household budgets. For many, the last district paycheck before classes begin in late August will come June 8.

Donations requested

Moore said the union will offer easy-pay plans to make it easier to donate.

"I think it's probably going to be met with mixed enthusiasm, " said School Board member Carol Cook, a former teacher. But she added, "I don't think it's a bad idea to be asking ... I hope several of them do (donate), including some of the retired teachers."

Said School Board member Janet Clark, a former teacher who opposed the 2004 referendum: "I think it's absolutely right that teachers should give back. I would hate to have the voting public think that the teachers are not grateful."

She cited fears of what would happen if Pinellas voters decide not to renew the tax. The district would have to cut more than $30-million from its budget or reduce teacher salaries.

Echoing other district officials, Clark said: "It's a scary thought to me."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.