Tax increase is for more than teacher salaries. How will Manatee schools benefit?

Revenue from the school district’s one-mill increase on property taxes, approved by Manatee County voters last year, will go toward more than just teachers’ salaries.

Before it was approved on March 20, 2018, the referendum was largely focused on providing competitive pay to teachers and other school district employees. But if teachers are expected to provide a quality education to their students, they need state-of-the-art equipment, according to a letter by James Dye, the school board attorney.

His letter offered guidance on a question that dates back at least seven months, when it was raised by the Citizens’ Financial Oversight Committee. The group, tasked with oversight of Manatee’s extra tax revenue, discovered $2.2 million slated for laboratory improvements at several schools.

Members questioned the legality of using referendum money on classroom improvements, and Dye responded in a letter dated Sept. 3. Committee members received the letter at their meeting on Tuesday evening.

Dye pointed to the referendum approved by voters. It outlined the need for competitive salaries and more instructional time, along with the expansion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, commonly referred to as STEM.

The referendum said extra tax revenue would be used to “expand career and technical education and STEM programs to prepare students for the workforce.”

Technology is considered a “capital” expense, a term for long-lasting equipment or “durable goods.” Such purchases are valid when used for “school operational purposes,” Dye concluded.

“It is my view that so long as appropriate accounting principles are followed and the funds are spent as described in the authorizing resolutions, the additional millage may be used for the purchase of capital equipment,” he wrote.

District officials previously brought the question to state auditors. Gregory Centers, deputy auditor general for educational entities, provided a summary of their conversation to the Bradenton Herald.

“Our staff spoke with Manatee School District personnel regarding the district’s one mill property tax revenue but gave no assurance regarding the district’s planned or actual expenditures from this revenue,” Centers said in a past email.

“We emphasized the district’s responsibility to document the authority for these expenditures and advised the district to seek guidance from the district’s attorney should any questions arise about this process,” he continued.

An estimated $37 million was promised to different people and programs, with each receiving a percentage of the revenue:

  • Instructional staff — 51 percent.
  • Hourly, non-bargaining staff and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — 8 percent.
  • School administrators and eligible SAMP (supervisory, administrative, managerial and professional) staff — 6 percent.
  • Paraprofessionals — 5 percent.
  • STEM and technical education programs — 30 percent.

When it comes to the money for STEM and technical education, Superintendent Cynthia Saunders and Doug Wagner, deputy superintendent of operations, have continually agreed not to use the money for construction. However, both felt the money could be used to enhance classrooms with new equipment.

“We would agree that the purpose should not be for brick-and-mortar construction, tearing out walls or flooring,” Saunders previously said.

“But if you needed to buy any type of instructional products, whether it’s high-dollar robotics or computers or laser printers, if a teacher or students were using it for instruction, it is allowable,” she continued.

Dye’s letter opens the door to new microscopes, robotics and other technology. Speaking at Tuesday’s committee meeting, Wagner said the money would provide students with new opportunities to learn and prepare for the workforce.

“I apologize it’s taken so long, but it definitely answers the question,” he said of Dye’s letter. “We’re moving forward on it, and it’s going to be a great year. I feel like we were stuck last year with all the conversation about it.”