A Manatee County school tax that barely passed four years ago lands on the ballot again Tuesday. Now the issue has turned partisan, with Republicans in this red county campaigning against it.
“We’re going to defeat the tax,” said Steve Vernon, president of the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club.
Vernon, the only declared candidate to succeed Kathleen King as Manatee County Republican Party chair, has criticized the proposed 1-mill property tax from its inception.
Before King’s departure as chair, the Manatee County Republican Executive Committee last July approved a resolution opposing the tax. The party criticized spending $400,000 to hold an off-year special election, said the tax ended up raising far more than necessary, and the need has never borne out.
“The Manatee County School Board has failed to justify the need for the proposed tax prior to placing it on the ballot,” the resolution reads.
The levy passed in March of 2018 with 51.39% of the vote, a margin of 1,564 votes out of 56,370 cast. The major selling point, then and now, is the need to offer competitive salaries to teachers. But Vernon said a tax that needs voter renewal every four years shouldn’t be used to back employee pay.
“The best way to give teachers a salary increase permanently is not through a short term tax. That’s ridiculous,” Vernon said. “We know why the powers that be, meaning the School Board and administration, did it. They want more money, which is what they always want.”
So Vernon said his club and other Republican groups in the region have mobilized this year to kill the tax in its infancy.
But the GOP isn’t the only party in town. Tracy Pratt, chair of the Manatee County Democratic Party, feels confident the millage referendum will be renewed. It’s county Democrats’ top priority, and while Manatee remains a conservative leaning place, she said the party plans to mobilize as many of its own voters as possible in order to keep the levy on the books.
“We are texting, phone banking and of course putting it up daily on our social media channels,” Pratt said. “We have a lot of engagement.”
And she expects benefits of the tax will prove broadly popular across party lines.
The Manatee County School District reports teacher vacancies and departures have dropped since the tax went into effect. That’s because the $46 million raised annually allows more to be earmarked for teacher pay, so salaries can match that in neighboring Hillsborough or Sarasota counties, the latter of which has consistently offered some of the highest salaries for educators in Florida.
Money will also go toward science, technology, engineering and math curricula, to extend instruction time in classrooms by 30 minutes a day, and to better traditional public and charter schools.
“This is being supported by nonprofits, even by Republican developers,” Pratt said. “There’s a tremendous amount of bipartisan support for this. Everyone supports strong public schools.”
Yet the issue has seen some high-profile critics. Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and Sheriff Rick Wells have both said they will vote against the tax.
But it’s voters who ultimately will decide. The countywide election takes place Nov. 2.