More Florida Counties Are Voting to Raise Local Taxes for Schools. Is It a Message to Lawmakers?
In a video that appeared on YouTube in mid-May, the Republican-controlled Florida House of Representatives said "union bosses and their media allies" were pushing a "myth." It wasn’t true, they said, that state funding for public schools had increased only 47 cents per student this year.
Three months later, as the new school year got under way, someone at Tampa’s Twin Lakes Elementary sounded an alarm.
"There is no air movement at all. We have special needs children in this room," an employee wrote in a report—one of hundreds last month that detailed air conditioning problems in schools, and in a district that blamed those failures on a chronic lack of funding from Tallahassee.
Does Florida give enough money to its public schools, or not?
That debate still rages, and is shaping up to be an issue in the governor’s race. But many voters have already addressed it more directly in the primary election, and many more will get the same opportunity in November.
Around the state, even in some heavily conservative counties, voters are opening their wallets to lend extra support to their schools. Of 10 local education funding measures on the Aug. 28 ballot, every single one passed.
The Hillsborough County School District caught that wave last week, completing the final steps that will put a half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot and joining seven other counties proposing similar measures.
For some, the widening effort suggests the public may be warming to the argument that Florida schools need better funding.
"The citizens recognize that the Florida public schools are the backbone of our future," said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, "They want to invest in quality schools. If we let our educational system and our facilities decay, that will have a negative impact on Florida’s economy and on the citizens of Florida."
Others like Shawn Frost, outgoing chairman of the Indian River County School Board, say the answer is not more money but getting school districts to better control their costs.
A leader in the conservative-leaning Florida Coalition of School Board Members, Frost said it offends him that the Palm Beach County School Board is paying up to $372,000 for a media consultant as it pursues a property tax referendum.
"There ought to be a law," he said.
Education leaders trace the financial strain to events that go back decades, some triggered by progressive Democrats.
Passage of the 2002 Class Size Amendment forced districts to hire more teachers and build more classroom space. The state provided millions for those adjustments, but critics say it was not enough.
Through the years, lawmakers also put a multitude of new responsibilities on school districts without approving the money to carry them out. That included, for example, laws requiring schools to give high-stakes tests online, forcing many schools to buy more computers.
In addition, the Public Education Capital Outlay fund, which relies on utility taxes, became a less reliable source of revenue. The fund shrank as cell phones replaced land lines, and much of the remaining money was diverted to privately operated charter schools.
Then during the recession years, the state imposed limits on the local property taxes that school districts could assess. In 2009, the cap was lowered from $2 for every $1,000 in assessed taxable value to $1.75. The following year it went down to $1.50.
And despite the economic recovery, the rate never returned to $2.
At the same time, the state imposed formulas that slowed or stopped tax collections from going up when property values rose.
"That’s good news for the taxpayer," said Ruth Melton, the school board association’s director of legislative relations. "But it ignores the fact that prices go up and salaries should go up and even the price of toilet paper goes up."
The upshot: Eroding revenues left less money for mushrooming expenses like maintenance.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Hillsborough County’s growth ballooned.
Taxable real estate more than doubled to $94 billion between 2002 and 2017. About 40,000 more kids showed up to be educated, and a building spree was under way, funded by about $1 billion in debt.
Mortgage payments on those 67 buildings now total $65 million a year, which eats into the district’s $135 million budget for construction and maintenance.
That’s one reason spending on maintenance has increased by just 14 percent since 2002, failing to keep pace with inflation as enrollment went up 25 percent.
Addressing the air conditioning crisis in June, deputy superintendent Chris Farkas told the School Board it would cost $71 million a year to perform the routine maintenance so each air conditioner could last 25 years. "That’s if we don’t paint anything, don’t change out a door," he said.
Painting, he added, is not cosmetic. You have to paint to protect schools from outside elements such as rain.
"And we start the year with less than $65 million," Farkas said, referring to what’s left in the district’s maintenance budget.
That’s less than what it spent in 2002.
While no two school districts are alike—some, such as Pinellas, are rich in beachfront property while others are densely populated in lower-valued, urban areas—the trend, for many, has been to collect more taxes locally.
Lists maintained by the state and the school boards association show at least a third of Florida’s 67 counties collect in one of two ways—a local option property tax, such as the 50 cents per $1,000 of value collected in Pinellas, or a sales tax like the one now on the ballot in Hillsborough.
The laws treat the two taxes differently. The property tax in Pinellas can be used for ongoing expenses such as teacher salaries and music instruction. As Pinellas is considered "property-rich," the county uses that model and, as required by law, puts it on the ballot for renewal every four years.
Sales taxes can be used only to fund capital expenses, such as new school construction or buying a new air conditioner.
The Hillsborough school system shared in one such tax referendum in 1996, the Community Investment Tax.
But, in a three-way split, that tax also supported public safety programs and construction of what is now Raymond James Stadium. Now in its final years, the program helps buy new school buses and security vehicles. The money is used for other capital needs too, including air conditioning.
Hoping for another $1.3 billion in sales tax revenue, Hillsborough school officials have begun releasing informative materials that likely will mimic those used successfully in other Florida districts. While state law does not allow officials to tell people how to vote, they do have considerable latitude in explaining what their tax dollars might buy.
Pinellas has a page on its website, illustrated with photos of children playing violins and a teacher reading a story to an attentive classroom.
"An educated population results in lower crime rates and less strain on social programs," the flyer says, addressing the question of why residents without children would support the tax.
In Orange County, the tourist economy made the sales tax a relatively easy sell.
"Because central Florida is a tourist mecca, visitors to Orange County pay 55 percent of the tax while our students benefit 100 percent," says one pitch on that county’s website.
Still, education leaders question whether it’s healthy for local taxpayers to assume a growing share of the funding burden for schools. For one thing, varying levels of funding contribute to differences in teacher salaries, making it possible for one county to raid another’s talent pool.
The Hillsborough measure, if passed, could not be used to raise the starting pay of teachers beyond the current level of $38,201 a year. But, in theory, adding to the capital budget would relieve pressure on the general fund and improve the overall health of the district’s finances.
Teachers are expected to be a key source of support for the referendum.
Melton, of the school boards association, lamented that the growth in local funding "lets the state off the hook for their constitutional mandate, that this is a paramount duty of the state. It makes it easier for them to say, ‘You just got your half a cent.’"
Conservative leaders, meanwhile, question the whole premise that the state is shortchanging schools.
"I agree that it’s often misrepresented, that 47 cents," said Frost, the conservative School Board member from Indian River County, referring to an increase this year of 47 cents per student in state funds that districts could spend as they wished.
He points out that the state approved far more money for specific purposes such as mental health and security in the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"If school districts were better at spending, there would be less of a concern about the revenue side of things," Frost argued.
"Probably, I’m one of five (school board members) in the state of Florida who would say that. …They ought to sharpen their pencils instead of holding out their hats."