Manatee County voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve a proposed school district property tax hike that would generate an estimated $33 million per year for the next four years.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 30,000 ballots had been cast during early voting or by mail, according to the Manatee County Elections Office.
The opposition’s “Say No Campaign” is almost entirely financed by Carlos Beruff’s construction company, Medallion Home. Of the $55,100 in contributions collected by committee Common Sense Manatee, all but $100 came from Medallion, according to the state’s campaign finance database. Common Sense Manatee had spent more than $38,000 as of the end of February, according to the state.
Forward Manatee, which is spearheading the campaign to “Say Yes” to the proposed property tax hike, has raised more than $85,000 from numerous individual contributors and spent more than $52,000, according to the county elections office.
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Another committee in favor of the proposal, SupportManateeSchools.com, has raised $7,900 in contributions and spent more than $5,200, according to the county elections office.
The battle will come to an end when the last votes are tallied next week.
If you are not sure how you are voting, or are confused on a particular aspect of the referendum, here is a detailed breakdown on some of the points and arguments from both sides.
Overall, approving the one-mill increase would allow the school district to offer more competitive pay so teachers and school bus drivers don’t leave for neighboring districts and would also extend the school day by 30 minutes, according to the district.
But opponents say the school district has mishandled funds in the not-so-distant past and that the raise for teachers and drivers is too temporary to attract and retain employees, and doesn’t have to come from taxpayers.
The district’s financial management
Opponents point to the district’s previous financial mismanagement and say that the community’s trust is eroded.
Kathleen King, chairwoman of the Manatee County Republican Party, says the GOP is against the millage increase not necessarily because of the money, but because the district hasn’t shown the community it can properly manage its current funds.
“We are for the teachers and the students, and we support the bus drivers, but voters need to be assured the money the district currently has is being used correctly,” King said. “But people just don’t feel comfortable with what’s going on now.”
King is partially referring to a November board meeting when members were blindsided by a report from Susan Agruso, chairwoman of the school board’s volunteer audit committee, that the district was, at one point, 11 months behind in completing its bank reconciling due to a computer glitch.
Last month, Agruso reported that everything was now up to date.
But the issue still left a bad taste in the mouths of many, including referendum opponent Garin Hoover, a real estate broker and attorney.
Hoover says the reconciliation issue, and other financial mishaps before it, show a lack of leadership in the district and has left mistrust in the community.
Hoover has debated supporters for the millage multiple times and routinely points to how projects in the district escalate from approved bids. In a handout, Hoover lists several district projects that have gone over budget, including a new computer system called ERP that has more than doubled in cost from the approved $9.3 million to an actual cost of $19.3 million.
Another point King and other opponents refer to is a Florida Auditor General letter from Jan. 16 that presented three audit findings to the district and requested a response to outline what, if any, corrective action had been taken. The three findings involve the bank reconciliations; compensation and salary schedules; and information technology security controls.
“There are too many recent instances of misleading the public with inaccurate information that involves the lack of fiscal prudence and financial oversight,” King said. “The district needs to be able to credibly demonstrate transparency and that they are telling the full, accurate and complete truth based on fact to restore public trust and confidence before they should expect voters to raise taxes on themselves again.”
District officials say they sent back their response on the required date of March 12.
Superintendent Diana Greene says opponents who bring up the auditor’s report are exaggerating the issues and pulling attention away from the purpose of the referendum.
“In 2012 the district had 42 audit findings. Forty-two,” she said. “And those are all operational findings and have nothing to do with financial. But to make an issue of that letter ... the district has made tremendous gains, growth and progress in eliminating any issue that would impede the district from being financially solvent.”
School board member Charlie Kennedy echoed Greene’s statement, and said the district not being perfect shouldn’t be a reason to not approve a much-needed raise for employees.
“Every large corporation will have some hiccups here and there,” Kennedy said. “If you look at the big picture of financial management of the district, we are in incredible shape compared to where we were five or six years ago. Anyone at any point will be able to point to small things, but when you look at the district’s overall financial health, we are doing much better.”
In further defense of the district’s financial state, Greene noted the district ended the past school year with a $25 million surplus versus six years ago, when they had a nearly $8 million deficit.
“So, the district not only has recovered from that, it is at a place where it is very solvent,” Greene said. “We have been audited since 2011, almost yearly, and each time our audit has gotten better. Our credit rating and outlook ratings have been increasing.”
She also went on to explain why the district is asking for the millage increase, given that the district’s bottom line has improved so significantly.
“This is about being competitive, not about needing dollars,” Greene said. “It’s so we can compete with surrounding districts in order to pay those higher salaries.”
Pinellas County residents pay an additional half mill to benefit their school district. Sarasota County has the same additional mill in place that Manatee is seeking, and has had it for the last 16 years.
Greene, along with other school board members and advocates, say that teachers are rapidly leaving for the two neighboring counties, and particularly point to Sarasota. The district pays its teachers almost $10,000 more per year compared to Manatee, yet has fewer students.
The extended school day
Opponents say the school day wouldn’t actually increase by a full 30 minutes and would only be lengthened by 15 minutes, as the Manatee Education Association teachers union only agreed to work an extra 15 minutes. But the district says that an agreement with the union states that teachers will work an extra 15 minutes per day that will be added to 15 minutes they already work outside of instructional time.
Greene clarified further, saying that the added time would come at the beginning and end of the school day, split 15 minutes at each end. For example, she said, most elementary schools currently start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 2:50 p.m. Under the extended day, classes would begin at 8:15 a.m. and end at 3:05 p.m. The extra 30 minutes, in total, will be instructional time, Greene said.
The nature of the pay raise
If approved by voters, the $33 million the extra millage would bring in each year would implement the extended school day and provide a pay increase for teachers, bus drivers and other school staff for the next four years, when it would have to be voted on again to continue.
Those against the tax say that the raise is too temporary and won’t effectively attract and retain the teachers and drivers that the district so desperately needs.
“How do you tell someone in an interview, ‘This is how much you’ll be making, but we may take it away from you in four years,’” Hoover said at an event last month. “That’s no way to attract employees.”
But advocates disagree, saying that it’s temporary as long as voters approve it and point to Sarasota as an example, which has had theirs in place for 16 years.
“I’ve never understood that argument,” Kennedy said. “If you are trying to decide between teaching jobs to accept, you will want to go to the county that offers you a better paycheck.”
At a recent school board meeting, board member Dave Miner also spoke out against the idea that the raise was temporary, saying that to rely on money from the state each year to pay teachers adequately isn’t reliable, and is a year-to-year process itself.
Florida, Miner and district officials said, is woefully underfunded for public education.
“There has been a slow-motion strangulation of public school funding in the state for a while,” Kennedy said. “There’s already a shortage statewide and as that shortage gets worse over time, the counties that have the extra mill will be the ones to be able to retain and attract that staff.”
Holding a special election
Advocates defend their choice of holding a $300,000 special election over waiting for a regularly scheduled voting day because “teachers and drivers are leaving now.”
They point to Sarasota, which is also holding its vote to continue their additional millage on March 20. The reason behind the timing of next week’s election, district leaders say, is to get the money in time for the next school year, and at the same time as Sarasota, not after.
But opponents think the extra cost of the election was an irresponsible decision and believe that the district’s reasons are more murky, as special elections routinely have low voter turnout, thus a higher chance that the measure will be approved.
How the money breaks down, according to the district
According to the Manatee County School District, if the tax hike of one mill is passed, teachers will receive 51 percent of the estimated $33 million it would generate each year, which works out to an average pay increase of $5,842 per teacher. This amount also covers the added time worked in the extended school day.
Bus drivers will receive 8 percent of the money, which means an average pay increase of $1,275 per driver.
Paraprofessionals, which include teachers’ aides and assistants, will get 5 percent of the money, which comes out to an average pay increase of $2,400.
District charter schools get a share of 14.5 percent, while STEM/CTAE programs get 15.5 percent.
Other school staff, including administrators, receive some of the money as well due to the extended school day.
How much does it cost tax payers?
A mill is $1 per every $1,000 of a property’s value, with the first $25,000 being exempt.
According to the school district’s website, the millage will cost the owner of a $225,000 home about $200 per year, or $17 per month.