County commissioners debate March 2018 timing of special 1-mill tax referendum for the School Board

Commissioner Moran ends up casting the only ‘No’ vote on the 2018 date

The County Commission sits in session on Jan. 25. File photo

After about 10 minutes of discussion on Nov. 14, the Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 to approve a resolution approving a special election on March 20, 2018 for voters to consider renewing a special 1-mill tax for the Sarasota County School District.

Commissioner Michael Moran, who cast the “No” vote, pulled the item from the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business items to ask just how much leeway the commission has in setting the date of the special election. He read the relevant statute twice, he continued, and found the section about the board’s authority on timing of the referendum to be confusing. “My simple question here,” he told County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, “is, What are we voting on today?”

“I feel very strongly,” Moran added, that voting should be done on the general election cycle. “Is this a check and balance [situation] before us?” he asked DeMarsh.

The same issue arose in 2013, DeMarsh replied, when the County Commission was asked to vote to authorize the School Board’s previous special election on the 1-mill tax, held in March 2014.

On Sept. 24, 2013, then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta asked DeMarsh to research the matter to determine whether the commission could set a different date than the one the School Board was seeking.

In an Oct. 2, 2013 memo to the commission, then-Deputy County Attorney Kathleen F. Schneider wrote that Florida Statute 1011.71(9) provides that the School Board is authorized to “direct” the county to call for the election and that the School Board is required to provide the wording of the measure and ballot title. However, Schneider wrote, “[T]he statute does not provide that the School Board direct the County Commission as to the date of the special election.”

Former Superintendent Lori White. File photo

Then-Superintendent of Schools Lori White wrote the board a letter, explaining of the Sarasota County School District, “Our fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.” The state’s Truth in Millage statute “requires that we properly adopt our millage rate for a designated fiscal year in July for notices to be mailed to taxpayers in August,” she continued. “We are prohibited from advertising any additional millage that has not been approved by the public through a referendum. Even if additional millage were to be approved after the fiscal year had started it could not be collected or applied until it had been properly advertised for the following fiscal year.”

If the district could not proceed with the referendum in March 2014, White further pointed out, “The negative impact on educational programs and retaining quality staff would be significant and would far outweigh any negative consequence of a March election.”

On Nov. 14, DeMarsh told Moran that, according to the state statute, the County Commission is the party that must approve the resolution setting the date of a special election. The school district provides the ballot language — which it has done, he noted.

The previous Sarasota County School District referenda on the special tax also were held in March, he added: in 2002, 2006 and 2010, as well as 2014.

“But [the board] does have some prerogatives with respect to when that election would occur,” DeMarsh said.

Commissioner Nancy Detert noted that she was a member of the Legislature who worked on the statute Moran and DeMarsh were discussing. Her recollection, she continued, was that the purpose of the law was to prohibit school boards “from having a whole bunch of elections.”

“It’s not a money issue,” she added, because the School Board incurs the expense of the referendum.

“We could probably vote ‘No’ on this if we wanted to,” Detert said of the district request for the March election.

The statute makes it clear that no more than one special election involving school board taxes should be held in a 12-month period, DeMarsh responded.

“Historically, they have done it in March,” Detert noted of the Sarasota County School Board members.

“I have no input whatsoever on the School Board millage rate,” Moran said, “or whether it’s necessary or not.”

However, he continued, if this provided the commission an opportunity to move the referendum to the standard November election cycle, he would take that opportunity.

“What would happen if we all voted ‘No’” to the School Board’s request for the March date, he asked DeMarsh.

“You would have a joint meeting,” DeMarsh replied with a chuckle.

Based on his understanding of the statute, DeMarsh said, he believes it gives county commissions the opportunity to move a special election “a day or two,” so such elections would not be scattered over a period of days. “That’s an efficiency I think is an appropriate role for the County Commission,” he added.

Date debated by School Board

A pie chart shows the amount of revenue the special 1-mill tax is expected to bring the Sarasota County School District this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

The Sarasota County School Board members themselves already had debated the potential of moving the referendum to November, before they voted unanimously on Oct. 3 to set the date for March 20, 2018.

“We have to [have the] special election in March,” board member Jane Goodwin said, “because [the tax sunsets] at the end of June 2018.” If the vote were delayed to November 2018, she continued, “we would lose $55 million, and that’s 15% of our operating budget, so everybody would take a 15% pay cut.”

“The community is solidly behind this referendum,” Goodwin added. Florida ranks about 40th in the nation for state spending on education, she continued, “and that ain’t good, folks.”

In the current school year, staff has estimated that the voted millage will bring in $56,505,622, or 7% of total revenue.

Furthermore, Goodwin said, the total of $1.2 million that the district has spent on the special elections in March since 2002 represents “0.15 of 1%” of the revenue raised by the referenda.

Just from the 2014-15 school year through the 2017-18 school year, district financial data show, the district expects to have a total of $213,396,870 from the special 1-mill tax.

“I respect the various opinions up here [on the dais],” Vice Chair Bridget Ziegler told her colleagues, but “I do believe there is a difference in opinion.”

Citing the fact that voter turnout for the March 2014 referendum was 15.5%, Ziegler said she felt the School Board had an opportunity to do the right thing for the community by moving the special election to November.

Moreover, Ziegler continued, “We dodged a bullet, if you will,” in the legislative session this year. A bill under consideration, which did not pass, would have eliminated the possibility of school boards’ setting special elections outside the regular election cycle.

“Tallahassee acts where school districts fail to lead,” Ziegler said.

Board member Eric Robinson reminded his colleagues that last year, Ziegler brought up the idea of moving the referendum to the November 2016 election, but that did not work out. By continuing to hold the special 1-mill vote in March, he said, the Sarasota School Board runs the risk that the Legislature at some point will pass the law it did not act on this year. “How much are you willing to gamble on this referendum? … It would be totally devastating to lose the $55 million.”

He added, “I want to do everything I can to ensure the continuation of the referendum.”

A segment of the current Sarasota County School District budget summary provides details about how referendum money will be used in the 2017-18 school year. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools
The second part of the chart shows other uses of the referendum money for the 2017-18 school year. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Ziegler made a motion to hold the referendum in March 2018, but to authorize the tax just for three years, instead of the traditional four. Board member Shirley Brown later made a motion to amend that to call for the extension of the tax through June 2022.

Brown’s motion passed 3-2, with only Robinson supporting joining Ziegler in opposition to it.

The board members then voted unanimously to approve the motion, as amended, setting the March 20, 2018 date for the referendum and giving voters the opportunity to authorize the tax for four years.

Back at the County Commission dais

The resolution the School Board approved on Oct. 3 pointed to the fact that the district “would face a revenue shortfall that would result in significant budget cuts requiring the elimination of numerous academic programs and positions” if it did not have the extra revenue generated by the 1-mill tax.

Commissioner Michael Moran. Filephoto

That resolution also explained that the revenue is used to maintain and expand academic programs, hire additional instructional personnel — including teachers, school support staff and certified school counselors — and to fund costs associated with the extra 30 minutes of the Sarasota district’s daily class time.

“At the end of the day,” commission Chair Paul Caragiulo told his colleagues on Nov. 14, “I don’t believe that a School Board has an ability to conduct an election, like a municipality does.”

However, Caragiulo continued, “I don’t think people should have elections when turnouts are low, period. … It should be avoided at all costs.”

Yet, Caragiulo added, “I’m personally very reluctant to get in the way of another governmental organization.”

When he asked for a motion, Detert made it, calling for approval of the March 20, 2018 referendum date. Commissioner Charles Hines seconded it. Then Moran cast the solitary “No” vote.