Education

Manatee voters pass school district tax referendum for increased funding for teachers, bus drivers

School district members and supporters believed they entered Tuesday as an underdog, but they ended the day with a thrilling victory in the special election to establish a one-mill increase on property taxes.

“I knew it would be close, but I didn’t want it to have to come from behind in order to win and it never had to,” Superintendent Diana Greene said from Anna Maria Oyster Bar Landside, 6906 14th St. W., moments after the election was unofficially called. “Amazing, just absolutely amazing. I don’t know what else to say.”

Manatee County voters had their say on the school district’s $300,000 special election, and the resulting millage increase is expected to raise an estimated $33 million a year for the next four years. A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of appraised property value.

According to the school district, the tax increase is intended to provide it with funds to pay more competitive teacher and bus driver salaries in order to keep them in Manatee County. The measure also includes extending the school day by 30 minutes.

The ballot measure succeeded with 51.38 percent to 48.62 percent against. Total yes votes were 28,949, with 27,392 voting no.

School Board member Charlie Kennedy, who also attended the watch party of supporters at Anna Maria Oyster Bar, said he was ecstatic at the outcome.

“I was cautiously optimistic coming into this but it’s just a really good feeling that we were huge underdogs tonight and I think Manatee County voters surprised a lot of people,” Kennedy said. “It’s going to be a new day tomorrow in Manatee County schools.”

Manatee Education Association President Pat Barber echoed Kennedy’s comments.

“This referendum is about our teachers,” Barber said, “and I’m really happy that the voters came in support of our school district, our students and our teachers.”

Garin Hoover, a real estate broker and attorney, has voiced opposition to the millage over what he says is the district’s lack of leadership, consistent financial mishaps and the measure’s temporary nature of a pay raise.

“The people of Manatee County have made their decision,” Hoover said of the election’s outcome. “We all want quality education in Manatee County, and I call on the school district to find a way to place teachers and bus drivers at the highest priority and consider making their pay permanent so they are not put in this predicament every four years.”

Kathleen King, Manatee County Republican Party chair, also raised concerns of financial mismanagement during the campaign while voicing support for the county’s teachers and bus drivers. King reiterated that support Tuesday night.

“Voters in Manatee County have empathy for our teachers and children and voted with their hearts,” King said. “We hope the financial oversight advisory committee will do the job they were intended to do and hold the school board and district accountable with the additional taxpayer money.”

There were 235,388 eligible voters for the special election. The number of votes cast were 56,450 or a 23.98 percent turnout, but the total numbers included a Longboat Key election. More than 33,200 of those votes were cast prior to election day, either by mail-in or early voting.

Manatee County hasn’t had a special election since 2013 when a half-cent sale tax was on the ballot to fund indigent care, which voters rejected. Turnout for that special election was about 18 percent, according to Manatee County Assistant Supervisor of Elections Scott Farrington.

“That’s the thing about special elections,” Farrington said. “No one special election is ever typical, and voter turnout really depends on the subject matter.”

When Michael A. Gilyardi walked out of the West Bradenton Baptist polling place Tuesday afternoon, he firmly said he voted no on the measure.

Gilyardi, who has lived in Bradenton for seven years, said that besides serving in the Marine Corp during Vietnam, he also had a one-year stint as a school board member in his previous town of Kingston, New York, nearly 12 years ago.

And he wasn’t shy about how he felt about the referendum.

“The district must have highly visible accountability. That’s the root of the matter,” Gilyardi said. “I need to see that they are being responsible before I pay them more.”

At the American Legion Post on 75th Street West, a voter who would only identify himself as Randy would have agreed. A father of a middle school-aged daughter, he said, “My daughter gets an allowance that she earns through chores. She’s taught that’s how much she gets and if she wants something, this is how much she needs to save, and this is how long it’s going to take her. She doesn’t come asking for something she didn’t earn and this is the same thing. The district gets plenty of money. They need to learn how to spend it.”

But for 17-year Ballard Elementary P.E. teacher Kate Fetzek, the measure is an opportunity to fix problems she said she sees every day.

“We are short on substitutes, we are short on teachers. I’ve known many who have left here for Sarasota,” Fetzek said. “I am happy that we have the opportunity to fix those problems, and I hope it passes.”

At Renaissance on 9th, Zoe M. Bowie said that’s why she voted yes.

“I believe strongly in our school system and what it offers to the students,” Bowie said.

When asked about the other side’s argument, Bowie acknowledged, “I don’t know what their budget is and I don’t know how they allocate their funds. I do know what their needs are and I do know this is an opportunity to help them.”

The Sarasota County School District also held a special election on the same measure Tuesday, with theirs asking voters to continue to support the millage, as this school year marks the 16th the county has had the tax in place.

At 98 out of 99 precincts reporting, the Sarasota tax referendum passed for continuation with 78.58 percent voting for and 21.42 percent against.

Samantha Putterman: 941-745-7027, @samputterman

HOW THE MONEY BREAKS DOWN

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.

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