For years, Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee have boasted about Florida’s charms as a low-tax state, and according to a recent report, Sunshine State residents do have the lowest tax burden in the continental United States (trailing only Alaska nationwide.)
But with more than 21 million people in the state and hundreds more coming by the day, the math simply isn’t adding up when it comes to the state paying for critical services like public education and transportation.
How else to explain the fact that more than 15 counties in Florida have referendums on ballots either this month or in November to raise local taxes?
The overwhelming majority are for school districts in need of more capital or operating expenses.
There are a number of reasons why school district officials across the state say that they have been compelled to call on their citizenry to fork up an increase in sales or property taxes: Reduced construction money for traditional public schools (with much being sent to charter schools); restrictions in the amount of property taxes the districts are allowed to assess, and most recently, mandates that every Florida school have an armed officer following the February mass shooting in Parkland.
“The reason that all these referendums are on the ballot is because the school districts have been losing money since 2008,” says Tina McSoley, a school board member from Martin County. “Between testing, busing and security, we can’t sustain this system that’s been created for public schools.”
The need for funding is so great in Martin County, located on Florida’s Treasure Coast just north of Palm Beach, that registered voters will consider two separate tax items for education this year: On August 28 they will vote on a measure to raise property taxes by a half-mill (a mill is $1 for every $1,000 worth of taxable property) to go towards increasing security in schools and raising teacher pay. That will be followed on Nov. 6 by a ballot measure to increase the local sales tax by a half percent to pay for school construction needs.
Politically, the measures are no sure thing. A year ago, Martin County voters overwhelmingly rejected a one percent, 10-year sales tax referendum to pay for replacing and repairing local government infrastructure. McSoley fears that if Palm Beach County (which has a measure set for November that would provide more money for teacher salaries and campus safety) passes its measure and Martin doesn’t, there could be an exodus of teachers heading south on I-95 for greener pastures.
“Legislators have passed the buck, and local districts are stuck with the bill,” says Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, Florida’s largest teacher union, and a group that’s long been at war with state Republican leaders
It’s not just the FEA and local school board members claiming that the Legislature is underfunding public schools.
Education Week gave the Sunshine State an “F” grade in school spending in its most recent rankings, published in June, a grade shared with 25 other states. But Florida stood alone when it came to per-pupil spending, with the authors writing that only 0.1 percent of Florida students are in districts where spending reaches or exceeds the national benchmark.
Brian Scarborough is a Gainesville-based insurance agent who chairs the campaign to raise Alachua County’s sales tax to fund school facility improvements. Local schools there have $168 million less in funding than they did a decade ago. He says it may take a few minutes to explain to voters why there’s a need to raise the sales tax from 6.5 cents to 7, but once he makes it clear, voters seem to get it.
“I feel like even for the most hardcore anti-tax person who’s a business person, they understand balance sheets and income statements. (So) if you take $168 million (away from schools) and you don’t replicate it anywhere else, you just have nowhere else to turn. We can’t close down branches or raise prices in the public school business.”
In Miami-Dade County, voters will be asked to raise the property tax millage rate by .75 for operating expenses, with 90 percent of that money going to raise teacher salaries, and the rest toward hiring additional school resource officers.
Lee County voters will be looking at a half-cent sales tax increase in November that would pay for school safety initiatives, building new schools, maintaining existing schools, and paying for classroom technology.
School Board Chair Kathleen Morgan says the idea of putting a referendum before voters has been actively discussed for the past several years.
“In 2008, our capital budget was $318 million. In 2017-2018, our capital budget was $118 million. That’s a $200 million drop, and it has continued to decline,” Morgan says. “We just have significant capital needs that aren’t being met by the funding we’re receiving.”
McSoley, the Martin County School Board member, has been involved in public education for more than two decades, and said it was a culmination of her passion for education when she was elected to the board in 2014. But the lifelong Republican now says she’s so frustrated with the Legislature’s handling of public school issues that she feels she can be more effective as an advocate outside the system. She decided not to run for reelection this fall.
“That’s why you see these referendums up and down the state. It’s catching up to these counties,” McSorely said. “So when Tallahassee made those rules, and when Tallahassee makes those mandates and the school board can’t afford to pay for things, they’ve got to find the money somewhere, or kids won’t get educated.”
It’s not a new phenomenon that school districts are hitting up their communities for cash. In March, voters in Manatee and Sarasota counties passed property tax referendums for schools. In fact, according to data provided by the Florida School Boards Association, 30 such referendums have been on local ballots in Florida since 2012, with only four of them failing.
But even though a slew of counties are going the referendum route this year, officials in other counties remain skeptical, such as in Hillsborough County.
“Anybody who goes to the taxpayers with their hand out asking for more is a heavy lift,” acknowledges Hillsborough School Board member April Griffin, referring to how a referendum for school funding failed back in the early 1990’s and only passed later (in 1996) when it was attached to a proposal to construct a football stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Griffin isn’t running for reelection. But Kelso Tanner, a Republican running to succeed her on the board, is sharply critical.
“The people I talk to feel that they are taxed enough,” he says. “Until they have confidence that the school board is made up of fiscally conservative members who understand how to plan and manage that budget without wasting money, tax increases are off the table.”
While the majority of school district officials blame Tallahassee lawmakers for shortchanging local budgets, in Hillsborough, some residents are angry with their elected officials for not putting more emphasis on another community need: local transit.
Two years ago, the county commission twice declined to ask voters for a half-cent sales tax to pay for a transportation plan called Go Hillsborough. This year, local residents began talking about putting their own-citizen’s driven initiative on the 2018 ballot.
“There was some palpable frustration about the county commission and the scope of the crisis was getting worse and worse and it was affecting people’s lives in a negative way,” says Tyler Hudson, the chairman of All For Transportation, the activist group that collected the necessary signatures in less than two months. The group announced on Wednesday afternoon that the measure will be on the 2018 November ballot.
The sales tax would raise $280 million a year for 30 years to pay for road and bridge improvements, enhance bus service and expand public transit options.
If approved, that would raise the sales tax in Hillsborough County to eight cents, tying it with Liberty County as the highest in the state.
While there is excitement about the transit tax in certain community circles, there’s also angst from some who worry it will compete with a planned referendum for school funding next spring. Former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor is working on the schools referendum, and she admits that a transportation tax proposal in the fall would probably put a crimp in those plans.
“I think the public’s going to have to sort it out and they’re going to look at what the ultimate cost is going to be for both of these measures,” she says.
Note: An earlier version of this story had the wrong definition of a “mill” in property taxes. It has been corrected and we regret the error.