Can the school district use its tax increase to buy robots? Here’s what we know

Manatee School District referendum supporters celebrate after special election win

Supporters of the Manatee County School District’s tax referendum celebrated at Anna Maria Oyster Bar Landside on Tuesday night after finding out voters passed the measure.
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Supporters of the Manatee County School District’s tax referendum celebrated at Anna Maria Oyster Bar Landside on Tuesday night after finding out voters passed the measure.

More than one year after voters approved a one-mill increase on property taxes, the school district and its volunteer oversight committee are still working to figure out if the money can be used for certain purchases.

It’s clear the extra tax revenue can’t be used for big developments, such as the construction of a new laboratory, according to district officials and volunteers on the oversight committee.

But can the money be used to buy modern technology and improve existing classrooms?

A narrow majority of voters approved the four-year tax increase and the formation of an oversight group on March 20, 2018. The committee is responsible for monitoring how the School District of Manatee County uses its extra tax revenue, and whether the increase is improving local education.

The committee, which approved its quarterly report on Tuesday, is scheduled to update the school board on May 28.

Most of the $37 million in tax revenue — 51 percent — is slated for instructional staff, while a smaller chunk of the money is earmarked for other district employees. Competitive pay was a major talking point during the “1 Mill 4 Manatee” campaign, and the committee seems to have few concerns when it comes to district salaries.

Department heads brought an accounting issue to the committee, related to the “allocation of certain payroll benefit costs” that exceeded the budget, according to the new report. The issue was resolved, and Manatee is working to fix the system that led to its error.

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Fourteen members of the Citizens’ Financial Oversight Committee discuss future steps at its June 19, 2018, meeting. Giuseppe Sabella Bradenton Herald

The lingering question relates to another promise in the tax referendum. Along with its salaries, the district vowed to expand its career and technical education programs, along with its courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

School budgets are divided into different categories, and Florida law restricts each category to certain uses. The extra tax revenue goes to Manatee’s operational costs, which are used for employee salaries and benefits, among other things.

Upgraded tools, such as a high-end computer or robotic arm, are considered a “capital expense,” which is often associated with construction and the installation of new technology.

About four months ago, committee member David Ballard questioned whether the extra tax revenue could be used for “capital” purchases. He was responding to a $2.2 million budget for new equipment and upgraded laboratories at Parrish Community High School and other sites.

After the committee raised its concerns, the district decided not to use its extra tax revenue on the building itself, said Doug Wagner, the deputy superintendent of operations, and Manatee’s executive director of adult, career and technical education.

The district hopes to prepare high school students for the workforce if they choose to start a career after graduation. They need to learn on modern technology, which is covered by the tax referendum, Wagner said.

“It can be used for equipment if you’re talking about science,” he continued. “Digital microscopes are big now.”

At a cost of about $35,000, one of the big wish-list items are co-bots, robots that work alongside humans to complete a task. They can be found in workshops and factories throughout the U.S., Wagner said.

In response, committee member Garin Hoover pointed to an advertisement released during the “1 Mill 4 Manatee campaign,” led by former Superintendent Diana Greene.

“Manatee County voters approved an extension of the half-penny sales tax in 2016,” it read. “That money will be used exclusively for new buildings, renovations and technology. The 1 mill is for the people inside the buildings.”

Pat Barber, longtime president of the local teacher’s union, feels that helping district employees and buying classroom tools are interconnected. The money sits in Manatee’s general fund, which is more flexible than other areas of the budget, Barber said.

“You can’t expect to expand your STEM program without the materials those teachers need,” she continued.

Several committee members heard that Manatee reviewed its tax referendum and its spending plans with an attorney, but without a written explanation in hand, the group wanted more certainty about Manatee’s compliance with state law and the referendum.

Ballard asked the deputy superintendent to itemize and justify every purchase. Adding to his request, the union president urged Wagner to include a statutory justification for each purchase.

In turn, Wagner said he would create a running spreadsheet that outlines purchases, costs and classroom benefits.

“It’s not a big deal to list out, and that way it can be clear as day,” he said.

The committee’s report, scheduled for school board review on May 28, said Manatee is still “researching additional clarifying information” on the lingering concern.

Continuing its meeting on Tuesday, the committee brainstormed ways to track student interest in the STEM field. It also recommended that Manatee use exit interviews and year-end surveys, polling district employees about why they chose to leave, or what led them to stay.

“Though we have been able to track some data related to teacher attraction and retention, this is the first year with the referendum in effect,” the committee reported. “It is too early to report any definitive results.”