Renewal of school tax urged

A defeat at the polls would leave a difficult gap to fill, a booster says.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 10, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - Failure to renew a special property tax that supplements teacher raises and enhances reading, music, art and technology programs would be a devastating loss for the school district, Beth Rawlins told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Wednesday.

"I'm confident the School Board and the district would do everything they could to plug the hole," said Rawlins, a political consultant and chairwoman of Citizens for Pinellas Schools, the group that is promoting the measure. "But I don't see how that would be possible."

Originally approved by voters in the 2004 general election, the tax of 50 cents on every $1,000 of assessed property value expires after the 2008-09 fiscal year. The Pinellas School Board agreed in October to place a referendum to renew the tax on the Jan. 29 ballot.

Eighty percent of the proceeds have gone to enhance teacher salaries. The rest has gone directly into classroom programs.

"New computer labs have been added at every high school," Rawlins said. "Reading programs have been amplified. Every kid who can't pass the FCAT has access to reading coaches."

Best of all, she said, the people who are making decisions about spending the money are those closest to the children.

"It's the choral director, the elementary strings director," she said. "These aren't decisions that are made from on high."

Despite the benefits, Rawlins said she is aware that the timing for the referendum's renewal could be problematic. With a statewide constitutional amendment on the ballot that would lower property taxes, voters could be confused. They might think the two measures would cancel each other out.

Citizens for Pinellas Schools could have waited until November's general election to ask voters to renew the local tax, Rawlins said, but group members favored the January ballot because it looked less crowded. It also will be the last election for touch screen voting machines, which encourage voters to go to a ballot's end, where the referendum will appear.

But there was a more compelling reason to put the measure before voters sooner, Rawlins said. If the tax isn't renewed, the district needs as much time as possible to make up a projected $40-million-a-year revenue loss.

The deficit would force district officials to contemplate what they have referred to as the "Titanic model," a scenario with only two options: reduce teacher salaries to prereferendum levels or make painfully deep budget cuts.

"I would be lying if I didn't say I was worried," Rawlins said. "But I'm confident that the voters of Pinellas County will support the school system once they understand the question before them."

An August poll of 400 likely voters by the Pinellas teachers union indicates that support for the referendum may be higher than in 2004, when it passed with 64 percent of the vote. While nearly 60 percent of those polled said their property taxes were too high, 66 percent said they favored renewing the special tax another four years.

Rawlins is hoping that all those people turn out to vote on Jan. 29.

"Sometimes you can't miss what you never had," she said. "But once you've had it, it would be very painful to let it go away."

Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413.



The referendum

What is this about?

The Pinellas County School Board is requesting a four-year continuation of the one-half mill property tax approved by voters in November 2004. The funding runs through 2009. Voters must approve it for another four years for it to continue after that.

How much money is it?

About $35-million a year for four years.

What would the money be used for?

Teacher pay, improved technology, additional textbooks, reading programs and arts and music programs.

How much would this cost me?

Fifty cents on every $1,000 of assessed property value. Last year, the owner of a home assessed at $200,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption paid $1,349 in regular school taxes plus $87.50 for the special tax.

When would voters get to weigh in on this?

Jan. 29, the same date as the presidential preference primary and the constitutional amendment regarding property taxes being proposed by the state Legislature.

Source: Citizens for Pinellas Schools