Bills in the legislature raise alarm with Sarasota County School Board members over future of 1-mill voted tax

Proposed new law would necessitate the district’s move of its referendum from March to November general election ballot

School Board members Caroline Zucker (left) and Bridget Ziegler prepare for the start of a workshop in 2016. File photo

Sarasota County School Board members have expressed alarm over bills filed in the Florida Legislature this year that they say could threaten the funding the district receives through its voter-approved 1-mill tax.

House Bill 139 and its companion legislation, Senate Bill 278, originally called for local government discretionary sales surtax referenda to be held on the dates of general elections. School Board Chair Caroline Zucker told her colleagues during their Feb. 21 work session that the proposal has been modified, so it also would be applied to the discretionary tax for which the board first won support in 2002. For the 2017-18 budget year, that tax is expected to bring in about $56.3 million, based on a property value increase of 6% Al Weidner, the deputy chief financial officer for the district, pointed out.

The School Board always has held the referendum in March. The most recent one was conducted in 2014; the next one has been proposed for March 2018.

During the current school year, the funds pay teachers for the extra 30 minutes of the school day beyond what the state requires; and provide the salaries for all elementary science teachers, guidance counselors, assistant principals at the district’s Title I schools with fewer than 800 students, administrative interns at non-Title I elementary schools, all the art and music teachers in the district, and all the information technology personnel, according to information released in conjunction with preparation of the 2016-17 budget.

School Board member Shirley Brown. File photo

For the 2017-18 school year, Weidner pointed out, the budget includes 536 positions covered by referendum revenue.

“We made promises to the voters: ‘This is how we’re going to use that money,’” board member Shirley Brown added.

“That has been really very disconcerting,” Zucker told her colleagues on Feb. 21, referring to details she has read about the bills.

Board member Jane Goodwin added that she also understood the threshold for passage of the referendum would change from a majority of voters to 60%, which would pose an extra challenge for the district.

“Some people I talk to have a problem understanding what would be the problem of moving [the referendum] to November,” Brown told her colleagues.

Retiring Superintendent Lori White explained to attendees of a January 2014 Tiger Bay Club meeting that School Board members chose the March time frame after an initial referendum — held in the summer of 2000 — failed.

“There are actually more citizens here in March [eligible to go to the polls],” White noted. “They don’t all choose to vote.”

Financial facts

Weidner also explained during the board’s Feb. 21 work session that not only does the state require School Boards to approve their budgets in July, but it also makes it illegal for them to allocate funds they do not have on hand at the time. Therefore, he said, if the board had to skip the March 2018 date and hold the referendum in November 2018, even if it won voter support, the funds the district would receive could not be counted upon for the 2018-19 budget year. “That would [mean] a full year’s loss [of revenue].”

The best-case scenario in that situation, he continued, would be no salary increases for teachers and classified personnel. More likely, however, it would prove necessary to roll back salaries, Weidner said.

Past and present

School Board member Eric Robinson. Image from his campaign website

The School Board should have followed member Bridget Ziegler’s suggestion last year, to go ahead and hold a referendum in conjunction with the 2016 Presidential Election, new board member Eric Robinson pointed out. “Then we would not have a gap.”

Nonetheless, Robinson continued, legislators have talked about allowing school boards that plan elections in March 2018 to go ahead with them and then have follow-up referenda in November 2018.

“So you would tell people to go ahead and vote for this tax [in November] that you’ve already voted for [in March]?” Brown asked.

“They’re talking about having a patch, so people won’t have a gap [in funding],” Robinson said of legislators.

“I haven’t heard that,” Zucker responded.

Robinson suggested she call state Reps. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) and Colleen Burton (R-Lakeland) — chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House Ways and Means Committee — to talk with them about the status of the House bill, because their committee is scheduled to hear it next. (No information was available on the House website as of Feb. 27 regarding that hearing schedule.)

Members of the Local, Federal & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee unanimously approved HB 139 on Jan. 25, legislative records show.

Goodwin encouraged Ziegler to use any influence she has with Florida House members to assist the district.

(Ziegler’s husband, Christian Ziegler, is a Republican state committeeman, representing Sarasota County. His Facebook page says, “I’m your voice within the Republican Party.”)

When Ziegler asked whether the board in years past had discussed showing the tax revenue as a special account in the budget, Weidner explained that the board used to require that staff separate the funding from other revenue sources, for budget purposes. However, the district received a lot of bad publicity as a result of that, he continued: Negotiations with the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association became contingent upon passage of the referendum every four years. It was seen as “basically … blackmailing your employees to vote for this,” he said.

More worries

The Florida Legislature’s 2017 session will begin on March 7. Photo by Michael Rivera via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s a huge effort on staff and the superintendent” to work for passage of the referendum, Weidner pointed out. “You have to get out there and make sure the public is aware of why it is so important.”

If the district has to hold two referenda within months of each other, Zucker indicated the School Board will have to mount a significant marketing campaign. That would be quite a burden, she added, “especially [for] the chair.” She could say that, she pointed out, because she would not be the chair next year.

“My biggest concern is that it isn’t a guarantee,” Ziegler said of winning voters’ approval of the referendum. She likened the funding to a sales commission: A person cannot count on the money when setting out to try to make a sale.

Every time the board has planned a referendum, Goodwin noted, it has asked members of the public what their priorities are for use of the revenue. Consistently, she indicated, voters have put the focus on art, music, dance and drama teachers; the extra 30 minutes of the school day; and the elementary science teachers. Without the latter, Goodwin said, the elementary instructors would have to “teach everything.”

Goodwin then pointed out that the Charlotte County School District has had to cut staff because of revenue concerns. “They really aren’t growing and don’t have the resources [that Sarasota County has for extra personnel].”

Goodwin added that to her recollection, Charlotte County’s academic rankings were comparable to Sarasota County’s several years ago, “and they are not today.”

In fact, she said, she learned through recent discussions with Charlotte County district representatives that the School Board is fearful of losing students to South Sarasota County Schools under the new school choice program the state has implemented.

“I can’t imagine how bad it would be if we didn’t have the referendum for a year,” Goodwin added.