Pasco School Board readies referendum on special property tax

If approved, the revenue would bolster salaries, which lag behind those in neighboring districts.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | April 5, 2022

LAND O’LAKES — Pasco County voters soon might have the chance to decide whether to give public school teachers, bus drivers and other employees a raise.

The School Board on Tuesday instructed superintendent Kurt Browning to bring forward a resolution for a November referendum on a special property tax that would generate added revenue foremployee pay at district and charter schools.

Board members did not set a tax rate to ask for. The board intends to make that decision in two weeks, after getting more information and hearing from the public.

Members said the situation is critical because the district’s pay is not competitive with surrounding counties. The average Pinellas County teacher earns about $4,000 more than a Pasco teacher, and the average Hillsborough County teacher gets about $3,100 more, according to district data.

Vice chairperson Megan Harding said she had spoken to employees who can’t afford to fill their gas tanks or make their rent payments, and job candidates who turned down positions because of the low wages.

“They’re amazing educators. We need to keep them,” Harding said.

District chief finance officer Olga Swinson said the county’s budget situation, which led to lower salaries, was attributable to several factors. Those included a decrease over the past decade in the state-mandated local property tax rate, rising costs of required services and declines since the Great Recession in what the state spends per student.

“It took us 10 years to get back to where we were in 2007-08,” Swinson said. “That’s the main reason why we were unable to put money into salaries.”

Board member Colleen Beaudoin advocated a vote on $1 per $1,000 of taxable value, which officials estimated would generate about $37 million a year and cost the owner of a $325,000 home about $300 more a year in property taxes. That rate could allow the district to increase teachers’ annual salaries by about $4,000 and non-instructional workers’ pay by about $1,700.

“We need to significantly invest in our employees because we need them, our families need them,” Beaudoin said, adding that students deserve better than revolving doors of substitute teachers and delayed bus rides. “We don’t want to be not the lowest. We want to be the highest. We want to attract and retain the best teachers for our students because they deserve it.”

Other board members did not disagree with her view. But they were hesitant about committing to the $1 per $1,000 rate.

“That’s what the voter is going to be looking at — how much is it going to cost me?” board chairperson Cynthia Armstrong said. “We want to set this up for success with the voters.”

One parent attending the meeting told the board she would oppose the referendum. Instead, Marta McClain urged the board to focus on eliminating waste and improving efficiency.

“Multiple programs within our school system are inefficient … and outside the scope of what the schools really should be doing,” she said.

Don Peace, United School Employees of Pasco president, repeated his support for the concept, which he has advocated over several years.

“This initiative is no longer an option for this district, but a necessity for us to attract and retain highly qualified employees,” Peace said.

If the board ultimately places a referendum before voters, a group of retired administrators stood ready to help promote it. Former principals Beth Brown and Todd Cluff, food services director Rick Kurtz and district spokesperson Linda Cobbe attended the workshop to offer to lead the campaign.

“We’re behind it,” said Brown, who will lead the Lift Up Pasco! group. “We will be the crowd funding, community messaging — the voices in the community….Lots of retired (district) people are ready to step up.”

State law permits districts to pursue additional property tax revenue to supplement state revenue for four-year terms. They also can adopt sales tax initiatives to support capital projects, as Pasco has done for several years with its Penny for Pasco.

Several school districts across Florida have adopted a property tax to support their general operations, including Pinellas and Hernando counties. Many are making preparations for new or renewed ballot initiatives this year, including Brevard, Lake, Duval, Marion, Palm Beach and Broward counties.

The Hillsborough County School Board has been exploring the possibilities, too.

District staff said eight districts have both taxes in place: Alachua, Clay, Collier, Lake, Manatee, Orange, Palm Beach and Sarasota.

Few of the ballot questions have failed in recent years. Liberty County voters narrowly defeated a 2020 tax item, while Bay County voters soundly rejected one in 2021.

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