In a blink of an eye, four years have passed since the voters of Martin County approved two referenda to increase taxes.
One was a half-cent sales tax to replace two elementary schools and other capital improvement work. That tax was for a term of seven years and will expire in 2025. The other was a half mill increase for property taxes for four years. It is expiring at the end of the current tax year on June 30th.
The latter proposal is up for another vote on the August 23rd ballot. The language is slightly different than in 2018. The ballot will read as follows:
“Shall the Martin County School District continue the existing ad valorem millage up to one-half mill per year beginning July 1, 2022, and ending June 30, 2026, for essential operating expenses (School Safety and Security, Mental Health Programs, Recruiting and Retaining Qualified Teachers and Support Staff, Professional Development, Academic Initiatives); providing charter schools funds proportionate to student enrollment as required by law with annual reporting to citizens”
The key difference between the last proposal and this one is instead of a flat half mill (the language of four years ago), it now is a not-to-exceed number. Which means it could be for less at the Board’s discretion but never more. The five categories where the money can be spent are the same. The requirement that there be an annual reporting is also still there.
Before one can know whether to support this tax, one should look at how the money was spent previously. For the last four years, the school board has been scrupulous in keeping the spending to the categories outlined in the last referendum. They have also had a citizen’s review committee that has audited the district. The reports are on the district’s web site.
MCTA has heard from some taxpayers that the district should not receive the money because of what they perceive to be disappointing reading scores, or the district schools being rated at less than an “A.” Individual voters should not believe that withholding funds from the district because of the rating or reading scores will help to improve either. For that matter, any academic improvement won’t be better because of fewer dollars. Though we believe that money alone will not produce better scores either.
Most of the money (about 77%) has gone toward teacher stipends and the rest to other personnel and outlined areas. The half-cent sales tax was meant to be finite. Its purpose was to build two new schools and perform deferred maintenance. The half-mill real estate tax has a different purpose.
Teacher and other personnel stipends are ongoing. This year the amount that will be covered by the tax on the ballot for those two items will be $10 million for teachers and $2 million for other job categories. Will the district ever be able to just use their other funds to cover the shortfall, or will this tax need to be ongoing indefinitely?
If the referendum is defeated, what happens? The district cannot just add the additional ad valorem onto its millage. State law proscribes what the rate will be. That is why the referendum was needed.
Martin County teachers will never be paid as much as Palm Beach or St. Lucie teachers. They are starting from different bases. The original pay gap that Martin County School District had was $9 million. By the district’s own estimation, it still is at $6 million. It would seem to us that subject to a referendum every four years the extra half mill is now permanent. Without substantial cuts to other programs, it is obvious that the increased amounts for teachers and others cannot be sustained without the continuation of the half mill.
MCTA is not taking a position on whether to vote in favor of extending the half-mill. Every voter must look at the situation and determine that for themselves.