Don’t play political games with Pinellas schools tax referendum | Editorial

Voters will be asked to reapprove the property tax in 2020. To ensure its continued bipartisan support, donít put it on the March ballot. The November general election is the right time.
Joaquin Pizano, 4, of St. Petersburg, waves sign on Tyrone Blvd. Cerri, Lara  |  Tampa Bay Times
Joaquin Pizano, 4, of St. Petersburg, waves sign on Tyrone Blvd. Cerri, Lara | Tampa Bay Times
Published August 23
Updated August 23

Since 2004, Pinellas County voters consistently have approved a special property tax to supplement teacher salaries and improve public schools. The tax always has been approved with overwhelming bipartisan support. That’s why it would be a mistake to put it on the ballot next year in March rather than November, when voter turnout will be far higher. There is no reason to play political games.

Pinellas School Board members indicated this week they support the proposal by the tax’s proponents to ask voters to reapprove the tax in March, when the Democratic presidential primary will be the big attraction. Except in Clearwater, where voters will be electing a new mayor, there will be little additional incentive for Republicans and independent voters to go to the polls. The half-mill tax usually has appeared on the November ballot, and it should stay there in 2020.

The special property tax for Pinellas public schools enjoys wide support because voters see the real results. Last school year, the tax provided teachers with about $4,200 in additional income. The tax also pays for valuable enhancements to art, music and reading classes, and for better technology. The spending is carefully monitored, and the positive impact for students and teachers has been remarkable.

Yet moving the tax referendum to March smacks of partisan politics. It could undermine public support from suspicious Republicans. It also could bring unwanted attention from the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, which is skeptical about local tax referendums and consistently interferes with home rule. In every case when the referendum was on the general election ballot, more than 65 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. The one time the referendum wasn’t held at the general election, it was on the 2008 presidential primary ballot and only 40 percent of registered voters cast ballots on the tax.

The new wrinkle in this referendum is a change in state law that now requires districts to share funds from local-option property taxes with charter schools. The tax’s supporters worry that change may reduce support for the referendum. They also contend putting it on the March ballot will make it easier to get out the positive message. Maybe, but convenience is not worth making this nonpartisan issue appear partisan.

School Board Member Bill Dudley said at a workshop last week that placing the tax on the March presidential primary ballot is a “no-brainer.” The real no-brainer is that renewing the property tax is the right call for public schools. The best way to reaffirm its broad support is to put the tax on the general election ballot in November 2020 and give the most Pinellas voters the best chance to be heard.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.