Manatee County voters will decide in a special election March 20 whether to approve a school district property tax hike that would generate an estimated $33 million per year.
Approval, the school district says, would allow it to offer more competitive pay so teachers don’t leave for neighboring districts and extend the school day by 30 minutes.
The money would also be used to pay school bus drivers more, Superintendent Diana Greene said.
The debate has been contentious on several fronts, and the Tiger Bay Club of Manatee County held a discussion at Pier 22 in Bradenton on Thursday where speakers addressed opposing views.
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On the other side, opponents Garin Hoover of Hoover Realty and Linda Schaich, a community activist who has served on several school committees, both point to the district’s mishandling of funds in the past, the large size of its current budget and the temporary nature of the promised pay increase.
While the millage increase would bring in about $33 million a year, beginning next fiscal year, it would only last for four years. If the district doesn’t have a backup plan by then to keep the increased wages, opponents say, then they would have to ask taxpayers to extend the tax hike, continuing a vicious cycle.
Opponents also say that the school day wouldn’t actually increase a full 30 minutes, but 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.
There is also criticism about the district holding a special election instead of waiting for a scheduled voting day. But the district says that teachers are leaving now and students are waiting for buses now and that the problem needs to be fixed sooner rather than later.
Here is a breakdown of some of the major points by both sides:
SUPPORTERS: The referendum is a clear path to a teacher pay increase that is already set in motion.
The district says if the measure were to wait or isn’t approved, school officials would need to go back to the drawing board, thus pushing back the timeline on when teachers and bus drivers would get the money and, in turn, risking more leaving the district.
OPPONENTS: The proposal is a quick, 11th-hour fix that isn’t permanent and may actually turn off teachers from taking a job in the county due to the uncertainty of their paychecks past the four-year mark.
Since the millage increase is temporary, those who oppose the proposal say that it is an irresponsible way to solve a problem and that the district can, instead, figure out how to give teachers and drivers more competitive wages without making taxpayers pay for it and without it having a time limit.
SUPPORTERS: Sarasota County, which Greene says pays its teachers almost $10,000 more a year compared to Manatee yet has fewer students, receives money from the state for its budget just as Manatee does but also already has a millage in place. Thus, without approving the millage in Manatee, the district says there is no way it can close the gap to offer higher pay to rival Sarasota.
Supporters say that this is the only way to close the gap with Sarasota, where teachers can go work while still living in Manatee County, because Sarasota passed a similar proposal. Without it here in Manatee, the district says there is no way to keep up.
OPPONENTS: The special election itself is wasting money just to pass something that will in turn raise money from taxpayers.
According to the opposition, the district is wasting $300,000 of taxpayer money on a special election when it should have waited for an already scheduled voting day in 2018 at no cost.
SUPPORTERS: The district says that Sarasota students currently get one full year more instructional time during their K-12 career compared to Manatee students, and the referendum will pay for the additional instructional time.
The referendum will pay for the additional instructional time for Manatee, just like Sarasota, resulting in higher student achievement, the district says.
OPPONENTS: There are multiple alternatives the district can consider to raise teacher and bus driver wages without going through a tax increase.
Opponents say the district can re-prioritize its expenditures to put teachers and drivers at the highest priority; cut waste from its budget; or use half of its additional revenue from last year, which was about $25 million, toward increasing salaries.