Martin County Taxpayer’s Association Review of Martin County School District’s Millage Increase

The mission of the Martin County Taxpayer’s Association (MCTA) is: “To monitor and review all fiscal and tax matters affecting Martin County. To engage public officials, community leaders and private sector organizations who may influence the economy and efficiency of the County of Martin, the School District, municipalities and other taxing authorities in the matter of taxes and the financial resources of the County.” In accordance with this mission a review was undertaken by the MCTA of the Martin County School District’s ballot proposal to enact a ½ mill increase to the ad valorem tax rate for the District.

We should note that the District is asking for two tax increases in 2018. One will be a ½ cent sales tax increase to fund capital projects which will be on the November ballot. The sales tax increase will be discussed in a subsequent report. This MCTA report will deal with the increase in the millage rate which is for ongoing operational expense. A subcommittee of the Legislative Committee met with Chair Christia Li Roberts and Superintendent Laurie Gaylord to discuss this proposed tax increase. We also attended several school board meetings, community presentations, studied the proposed ballot language and the financial information supplied by the District.

To comprehend the reasons why the School District is requesting the increase, the voter must fully understand how schools are funded in Florida. In 1973 The Florida Legislature instituted the Florida Educational Finance Program (FERP). FERP was successful in having spending per student equalized across the state. To accomplish equalization, Florida mandates what the minimum school district tax rate (5.052 Mills) is going to be across the state’s 67 school districts. That rate is applied to the total taxable value and divided by the number of K-12 state wide students.

Using that mandated formula, Martin County collects more in ad valorem school taxes than can be allocated to the number of students the District has. The excess amount of allowable ad valorem tax collected ($45 million) is sent to Tallahassee to be distributed to other districts. Martin County real estate values are relatively high in comparison to other counties in the state. We are known under FERP as a “donor county.” The excess amount if allowed to remain in Martin County is 4 times more than what the requested hike would generate.

Florida further requires that the district provide certain programs and educational mandates that add expense without the state adding the necessary and appropriate funding. Class size, transportation, minimum instructional minutes, testing requirements, which students will be retained at Third Grade, curriculum and supplies needed, security expense and even the amount of recess minutes per day along with many others are dictated by the Legislature.

According to the District there are currently 12 elementary, 5 middle, 3 traditional high schools and 2 alternative schools. Martin County has 18,719 students with 1,172 teachers and an additional 1059 employees for a total of 2,231 full time employees. This report does not consider any capital needs such as school buildings or busses. The MCTA is solely concentrating on the daily operational needs of the Martin County School District.

Parents and the Community have certain expectations that the District provides and should meet. Our students should be given a sound basic education. That the students mental, emotional, physical, and social needs are met. That the teachers be well trained, and the class rooms have adequate supplies. The Martin County School District has fiscally conservative policies and that the Superintendent and Board are accountable to the various stakeholders.

However, unlike many other Florida school districts, Martin County provides many non-required educational components and student enhancements. Each elementary school has specialized music, art, and science teachers. The elementary schools have classroom reading materials in addition to those mandated by the state. There are middle and high school band & chorus programs plus multiple athletic teams in every high school.  High schools have extensive career technical training such as the culinary program at Martin County High School. The Environmental Studies Center is part of the student experience. According to the District, this is where cuts would be made if additional funding is not obtained.

The Martin County School District estimates that the ½ mill tax increase will generate $11.2 million per year. Their very sound and fiscally conservative policy of having a 5% Fund Balance would reduce the amount than can be allocated to $10.64 million.

The bulk of the tax increase (77.43%) will be for increasing teacher compensation. The School Board for two very good reasons are not calling these amounts raises. The Florida Legislature only allows for merit-based increases. The second and more important reason is that the tax increase being requested is for only 4 years and the funding stream is not guaranteed after that.

Teacher increases are based on seniority in this instance. Teachers with 1-5 years of experience will receive $1000. Those with 6-9 years of experience $5000 and those with 10 plus years will receive $8000. According to the School District, teachers are transferring to either Palm Beach or St Lucie School Districts not in the early years when compensation in the three districts are compatible, but as their career’s progress when Martin County is lower than the other two districts.

An additional 9.4% of the tax increase will go to the District’s other employees. 6.5% is allocated for additional School Resource Officers. More than 93% of the tax increase are for employee costs including SROs.

The Martin County School District’s requested ad valorem tax increase is for 4 years from July 1, 2018 until June 30, 2022. The District has provided the following example to show how the tax increase would affect a homeowner. If your home’s taxable value is $250,000 then the additional cost would be $125 per year.

While the ½ mill increase is for only four years, MCTA anticipates that the District will request that the voters approve an extension of the increase in the future. To have voters approve an extension it is important that they see that the money is being spent for the intended purposes. Therefore, the School District in the ballot language is committing to spend the added tax revenue in the specific way that is outlined in their material.

The MCTA is providing this report to assist the voters and taxpayers of Martin County to determine whether a tax millage increase is warranted. We do believe in the validity of the data provided by the Martin County School District. The voters must decide whether the District should continue to provide the same quality and quantity of programs to Martin County students. The District’s personnel costs have and will continue to increase due to market forces in surrounding counties. The School District can meet this increase by either cutting non-required student programming or by the ½ mill tax increase.