tampabay.com

Poll: Extra school tax okay

Early results of a teachers union's survey show support to extend it four more years.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 5, 2007


So much for the image of the fed-up Pinellas taxpayer, beaten down by increases and demanding relief at every turn.

The picture apparently is more nuanced when it comes to public schools.

A poll of likely voters by the Pinellas teachers union shows strong support for extending a 4-year-old special property tax used to raise teacher salaries, modernize classroom technology and beef up arts, music and reading programs.

Approved in 2004, the tax is 50 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value.

"Every indication is that the people like their schools, they like what we've done with the money, and they're willing to continue it," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

The results were "exceedingly favorable," said Beth Rawlins, a political consultant who heads a political action committee pushing for the tax. She also has children in the school system.

Moore and Rawlins based their comments on raw results from Goodwin Simon Victoria Research, a top political polling firm based in San Francisco. A full report with exact percentages will be released later, they said. About 400 likely voters were polled.

A 2003 poll by the union found support for the tax from 53 percent of voters. About a year later, the referendum ended up passing with 64 percent of the vote.

Rawlins said the new poll indicates support is stronger than it was in 2004.

How that happens in a time of high voter angst over property taxes will become clearer when detailed results come in, she said.

Moore said the results seem to say that voters feel comfortable with the tax because its locally administered, unlike the bulk of school taxes.

One poll question asked voters if they thought taxes were too high. The answer: a resounding yes.

"It's kind of like you don't like Congress, but you like your congressman," said School Board member Nancy Bostock. "Everybody thinks taxes are too high. But as long as you're spending our money, make sure you spend it on our kids."

She said the poll results were not surprising, "because I know the support for the previous referendum was very strong."

An analysis of the 2004 election results showed that much of the support for the tax came from older voters not directly connected to the school system. Whether they voted out of self-interest or a larger sense of duty is difficult to gauge.

In the teachers union poll from 2003, 70 percent of the voters asked said they feared state budget cuts would harm the school system. Eighty percent agreed that property values would decline if the school system slipped.

The latest poll is good news for the school district, which would face a devastating financial blow if the tax were not renewed. The district's budget office calls it a "Titanic scenario" with only two options: reduce teacher salaries to pre-referendum levels or make budget cuts that would be felt for years.

In short, the district has come to rely on the tax, which, under state law, must be renewed in four-year increments. Eighty percent of the tax proceeds go to teacher salaries.

Bostock was the only board member to vote against placing the tax on the ballot in 2004. Today, she favors placing it on the ballot again, in part because the district has little choice.

The tax raised $36-million in the last fiscal year, helping finance an average pay increase of 6.4 percent for Pinellas teachers. Overall, the tax has allowed the district to raise average teacher pay from about $40,000 a year in 2004 to about $46,000 in the 2006-07 school year.

The union estimates that teachers' paychecks, issued every two weeks, average $100 from referendum money.

This year's pay increase, expected to be much smaller because of state budget woes, will be negotiated later this month.

Among the other items funded by the tax: new computer labs at eight high schools, more training for art teachers, more museum trips for schoolchildren and help for musical strings programs at 26 schools.

The owner of a home valued at $200,000 for taxing purposes, with a $25,000 homestead exemption, paid $87.50 in the special tax last year. That's on top of regular school taxes, which came to $1,349 for that home.

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