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Vote yes on school tax
A Times Editorial
Published January 14, 2008
On the Jan. 29th presidential primary ballot, the Pinellas County voters who overwhelmingly supported their public schools four years ago will get the same chance again. But they should beware: the ballot includes two different tax questions that are night and day.
Whether the state needs more property tax exemptions is an entirely different proposition than whether Pinellas schoolteachers and classrooms need a helping hand. That second question, calling for the renewal of an extra 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable property for schools, was approved in 2004 by 64 percent of Pinellas voters. But state law limits the duration to four years, which is why voters have to renew it. The case is even stronger this year.
The smart thing school officials did as part of the previous referendum was to appoint a community oversight committee. As a result, voters this time know two things: 1) The money that will be raised from this extra tax is intended to boost teacher pay and provide for expanded technology and arts curriculum; and 2) The money that has been raised from the tax has in fact boosted teacher pay and built up technology and the arts.
"In terms of how the money was spent, this has really been executed flawlessly," says Beth Rawlins, a parent and government consultant who has helped lead the campaign. "It's really unusual to have a government program that goes exactly like it's planned."
Voters can view financial reports of the oversight committee online at http://www.pinellas.k12.fl.us/board/icroc.html. What they will find is that the extra property tax has given teachers roughly $3,800 more each year in pay, giving the district at a regional advantage in recruiting the best talent. They will see that the "Developmental Reading Assessment Program" is now available at every elementary school, that every high school has a computer lab, that art and music programs have been restored and that 26 schools now have strings instruction. They will see that $5.6-million has gone into technology and $2.1-million into libraries.
The sad truth is that the Legislature is supposed to provide these kinds of programs but doesn't. Public education is constitutionally described as a "paramount duty," but lawmakers still treat it financially as though it is a necessary evil.
This referendum is one escape valve for counties that refuse to settle for less. The state allows each county to raise extra property tax that is not to be shared with the Legislature. The money stays in the county that pays it, and every nickel goes directly to school operations.
The one significant drawback to this approach is that the state says voters can approve the tax for no more than four years at a time. That limitation is antithetical to proper financial planning, because the loss of the money could pull the rug from operational plans. For voters, though, the four-year cycle provides maximum oversight. In Pinellas, they can go to the polls this time knowing their money has been spent just as they intended.
This tax amounts to $75 on a home with a taxable value of $150,000, but it can produce $40-million for a school system that serves 107,000 students. School teachers and schoolchildren deserve the help, and we think voters will want to keep providing it.
The Times strongly recommends a YES vote on the Pinellas County school referendum.