Bradenton Herald | by Ryan Callihan and Giuseppe Sabella | June 9, 2021
After butting heads on the issue of a special election last month, the School District of Manatee County agreed to a compromise with the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday.
Voters will be asked to extend the one-mill referendum in November, but it’s the last time the issue will be decided during a special election. If approved, the higher taxes would continue to be used to pay teachers a higher salary, improve the district’s STEM programs and add 30 minutes to the school day.
The millage was originally approved in a March 2018 special election when it passed by a 3-percentage-point margin. Fewer than 60,000 residents voted in that election. After the county’s approval on Tuesday, voters will make another determination on the millage on Nov. 2.
In a May 11 discussion on the special election, commissioners called the school board’s request a form of voter suppression, arguing that a lower turnout makes it more likely a tax increase would be approved.
“We know no one is showing up for this thing and they know nobody is showing up for this thing,” Commissioner George Kruse said at the time.
Speaking with the board on Tuesday, school board leaders said they took those comments to heart as they went back to the drawing board to come up with a better plan.
Because voters approved the millage for a four-year period, it would expire before the August 2022 primary election, the date commissioners had previously suggested. After this November’s election, the matter will only appear on presidential general election ballots.
“We heard the message loud and clear and though we couldn’t adjust completely because it would expire prior to the vote, we agree that a presidential election is the best forum and format to ensure we have it moving forward,” said Superintendent Cynthia Saunders.
Commissioners said they were pleased to see the school board do away with the special election cycle.
“I felt this was an attempt to avoid high voter turnout. I’m OK with the way this is worded and I think it’s a fair compromise,” Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said. “After this, it will not be a special election again.”
“I’d like to start with a thank you because Commissioner Van Ostenbridge, you’re right,” School board chairman Charlie Kennedy responded. “This was a compromise. We took your input. We wanted our board to work with your board to come to a middle ground.”
While district leaders initially believed the one-mill referendum would yield about $37 million per year, it actually raised more than $42 million in the 2019-2020 year — a result of the growing population and soaring home values in Manatee County.
One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of appraised property value, with the first $25,000 being exempt. Before the referendum passed, the school district reported that its millage would cost the owner of a $225,000 home about $200 per year, or $17 per month.
“Thank you to the school board for redoing the resolution. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. It makes it easier for you guys, as well,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh told district leaders.
HOW WILL THE SCHOOL DISTRICT PAY FOR NOV. 2 SPECIAL ELECTION?
The school board’s special election is expected to cost $400,000, according to Saunders. In recent weeks, the school board has faced criticism over the decision to host a special election.
Saunders explained that special elections cannot be paid for with taxpayer money. Instead, the school district uses funds raised by outside organizations and fees charged to parents for childcare at certain locations.
HOW HAS MILLAGE HELPED MANATEE SCHOOLS?
The school district formed a Citizens’ Financial Oversight Committee after the referendum passed in 2018, creating a watchdog that monitors how that extra tax revenue is collected and spent. The group is also working to track what impact the money has on staffing and student success.
In a report dated March 3, 2020, the committee said that “no preliminary conclusions can be drawn at this time.”
“This is primarily attributed to time – a single year of data is not necessarily statistically significant in this circumstance,” the report said.
One year later, it seems the oversight committee is still researching what impact the tax increase had on local schools. The recent COVID-19 pandemic derailed much of the data needed to reach those conclusions, according to a draft report dated June 2.
The report also noted that historical information was “no longer readily accessible” after the district switched to a new software system. Without easy access to past information, it was hard to track progress as new data was collected.
The data “has produced mixed results” so far, the committee said in its draft report. However, that document was still undergoing changes as of Tuesday, meaning the final report could have more definitive findings.
“Student achievement has continued to rise (when using school grade as a proxy for student achievement),” the draft report states. “The recruitment and retention of teachers and staff with competitive salaries has proven to be a challenging area to measure. Limited historical information is available.”
“Information related to the expansion of Career and Technical Education and STEM programs supported by the Resolution Revenue is being measured, including the number of programs added as well as student participation in these programs,” the report continues. “It is too early to draw any conclusions about the impact of these programs on student achievement.”
Featured image: Supporters of the Manatee County School District’s tax referendum celebrated at Anna Maria Oyster Bar Landside on Tuesday night after finding out voters passed the measure. BY SAMANTHA PUTTERMAN