School boards across the state and nation have faced hordes of angry critics, slamming policies on COVID-19 protocols and other issues. But are voters as a whole ready to defund the schools? A test may come Tuesday when voters in Manatee County, a place Donald Trump won with more than 57% of the vote, decide whether to renew a property tax supporting public schools.
Manatee County voters in 2018 first passed the 1-mill tax, but by a razor-thin margin with 51.39% in favor of the levy. That was a margin of 1,564 votes out of 56,370 cast. So, can it survive in the current political climate?
School Board Chair Charlie Kennedy thinks so.
“There’s bipartisan support for kids and for an educated populace,” he said. “Whether people have kids in school or not, you want young people educated as best as you can.”
The tax in the 2020-21 fiscal year generated $47 million, most of that dedicated to teacher salaries with a significant portion dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math education. If renewed, a portion will be set aside for the arts.
But opposition groups are campaigning loudly this year against the renewal. The Manatee County Republican Party passed a resolution formally opposing renewal. It notes the tax has overperformed and was supposed to bring in only $33 million a year, yet school district leaders still want to charge the full mill on homeowners.
And in the midst of COVID-19 angst, conservative parent groups have mobilized this year more aggressively.
Steve Vernon, president of the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club, hopes voters nix the tax on Tuesday, and that the weight of the decision will be felt statewide.
“I know that people, mostly the mama bears out there, have never been as politically active and now they are,” he said. “They realize the bureaucrats are taking over and don’t want to hear anything parents have to say.”
Vernon isn’t the only prominent Republican hoping the tax goes down. Sheriff Rick Wells told the Manatee Patriots group earlier this month “I ain’t voting for that.” He also said the district hadn’t lived up to promises it made on how the money would be spent, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports.
County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh released a video on Facebook making clear she opposed the tax as well.
“I am voting no on that measure,” she said. “I feel like we have to live within our means, and as you saw from the Board of County Commissioners, we gave a small decrease on our millage. We’re not asking for more money.”
As for Manatee Patriots, the group has dispatched members door-to-door to campaign against the tax.
But just as conservatives mobilize against the tax, the local Democratic Party has put its get-out-the-vote capabilities to use in favor of renewal.
Tracy Pratt, Manatee Democratic Party chair, said there’s strong support for supporting teachers’ salaries, the justification for the tax four years ago and today.
“This is not a tax increase,” she noted. “It’s a renewal of a tax that has already existed and provided significant benefit to our schools and our teachers.”
And the Democrats have worked with some unlikely allies. Homebuilder Pat Neal, a prominent Republican donor who introduced multiple speakers at a Florida TaxWatch event last week, supports the school tax.
“When I build and sell a home in Sarasota County, it’s largely because of the good schools,” said Neal, whose company Neal Communities is headquartered in Lakewood Ranch. “For me and anyone who is interested in economic progress in Manatee County know you need good schools in Manatee County. Good teachers go to good schools with good teacher salaries.”
Kennedy suspects there are many Republicans and independents who feel the same as Neal, even if most aren’t as vocal. While the tax passed in a squeaker the first time, the district has since successfully increased teacher pay and performance in a statewide grading system for schools.
And he said the money is needed. While Vernon and others have criticized tying teacher pay to a tax that needs voter renewal every four years or less, Kennedy said there aren’t many other programs that could be cut if the tax ceased to exist.
“If you dive into school finances, you see 70% of our budget is already spent on salaries and benefits,” he said. “To say just find another $40 million out of your $500 million current operations budget, it’s just not there.”
Meanwhile, the county sits next to Pinellas and Sarasota school districts, which offer high pay and have maintained similar property taxes for a respective 18 and 20 years. Before the tax, district officials complained good teachers would begin their career in Manatee but quickly cross University Parkway or the Sunshine Skyway to find better paying jobs.