Debate underway over proposed school board property tax increase

Florida Today | By Bailey Gallion | April 14, 2022

The Brevard County School Board hasn’t officially decided to put a property tax rate increase on the November ballot to fund teacher raises and other expenses, but already critics are trying to stop the effort.

An exchange from Tuesday’s school board meeting suggests that the public should prepare for a heated battle.

If the School Board moves ahead with the Nov. 8 referendum, voters would be asked to approve an increase of $1 per $1,000 of each property’s assessed value for four years. Owners of a property assessed at $300,000 would pay $300 more each year, though Florida residents qualify for certain exemptions that decrease the amount they’ll pay.

BPS Superintendent Mark Mullins challenged community members to dig into the district budget and find ways for administrators to come up with cuts to fund teacher raises, classroom technology, arts programs and more. He said though BPS is indeed receiving more money than ever from the state, much of it must go to charter schools and increased financial obligations from state legislation including required wage increases and increased contributions to the Florida Retirement System.

“It is very clearly and explicitly laid out (during an March 22 budget workshop) that there remains approximately $3.5 or $3.6 million of uncommitted revenue to address inflation, to address exorbitant rising healthcare costs for our employees, even before we consider any cost-of-living increase for our employees,” Mullins said. “I would refuse to allow a misrepresentation of data and information.”

Some who opposed the millage increase say BPS has plenty of money and should seek to cut in places to fund the much-needed raises. Others say now is the wrong time to place increased financial burden on Brevard families, or called for more budget oversight. Five residents opposed the increase at a Tuesday School Board meeting.

“The public has lost all trust,” Katie Delaney, a Brevard parent, said. “And now you’re asking us for more of our hard-earned money when we’re spending $5 a gallon on gas and a loaf of bread is $5. People can barely feed their families right now, and now you want to tax them more. It’s not right.”

“I’m 100% behind teachers getting a pay raise,” Shawn Overdorf, a parent and candidate for the District 2 School Board seat, said. “They’re grossly underpaid. … I’ve been going door to door canvassing neighborhoods. A lot of parents are kind of against this. I’m not against it. I’m not. But I think we need to look at all alternative resources.”

State Representative Randy Fine has also criticized the referendum, saying BPS is receiving $42 million more next year. The funding jump represents a 7.5% increase, Fine said.

As chair of the K-12 appropriations committee, Fine was instrumental in writing next year’s education budget, which has not yet been signed by the governor and handed down to schools. He contends that BPS is losing money because it has driven families away.

“Don’t let these politicians claim they are broke,” Fine wrote. “The bottom line is they are running a failing system. Don’t take my word for it — look at the decision of 4,300 families to leave their government-run school for a charter.”

A resident read the post out loud during the public comments section of Tuesday’s meeting.

Fine has long championed charter schools and school vouchers allowing qualified students to attend private school at no cost to their parents. Fine also proposed a $200 million adjustment to siphon money away from school districts including Brevard that challenged state legislators by instituting mask mandates in the fall and reward those districts that didn’t. During budget negotiations with the state Senate in March, legislators agreed to financially reward those districts without mask mandates or those who allowed parents to opt out, but funded the $200 million with a budget increase instead of cutting from districts like Brevard.

In response to questions about transparency, Mullins said the district is already audited by third parties on a regular basis.

“I will never shy away from any suggestion of accountability, either fiscally or in any other aspect of this organization,” Mullins said. “But I would offer to this community we are audited, without question – not only annually but periodically throughout the school year, all by third party individuals including the state.”

Critics of the millage increase responded that they seek a forensic audit of the budget, which specifically searches for fraud and misuse of funds, usually for a pending civil or criminal court case.

The board will vote at an April 26 meeting on whether to direct the Brevard County Commission to call an election to authorize the millage increase. It’s not clear whether the board will approve the resolution; several members at a previous board workshop did not express any strong opinions one way or another, and only said they were willing to discuss the issue further and consider a formal resolution.

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