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Palm Beach County students, teachers both deserve security

This editorial was originally published on October 16, 2018 in myPalmBeachPost


Palm Beach County School Board members voted to do something bold — and yes, risky — on July 18 when they put a one mill property tax increase on the November ballot.

Bold because for the second time in as many years county voters are being asked to levy an additional tax on themselves to support our public schools. Risky because not getting the 51 percent needed for approval will mean losing a likely guaranteed $50 million in annual support already ginned up for arts, music and choice program teachers.

But it was the right thing to do. And county voters should say “yes,” overwhelmingly.

The proposed tax would raise an estimated $200 million annually to continue the arts programs, pay for a long-overdue boost in teacher pay, and fund state-mandated improvements in school security and on-campus mental health.

Local anti-taxers gripe that school officials could simply find the money in an allegedly bloated school district budget. While we don’t doubt there are some opportunities for efficiencies, there’s not $200 million worth. The fact is, our sprawling district of 195,000-plus students has been forced to operate with a shrinking general budget for years — putting off basic repairs to schools, for example.

As we’ve said previously, any citizen unhappy with the school district decision should complain to the Florida Legislature.

That’s because lawmakers — in particular, House Republicans — have taken their anti-tax ideology to an extreme. Not only have they refused to raise any taxes on what we’ll generously call principle, they also have refused to allow the state’s school districts to tax property at the already-existing rate while property values have risen since the Great Recession. By the solons’ twisted logic, the increase in proceeds would constitute a detested “tax increase.”

So, although Palm Beach County has become more prosperous and real estate values have surged, its public schools are going begging. For three straight years, the Legislature has rolled back the schools’ millage rate, from $5.003 in fiscal 2016 to $4.078 for fiscal 2019. (That’s per $1,000 assessed valuation.)

As a result, the heroic tax-cutters of Tallahassee have lavished an owner of a $300,000 property with a savings of $277 in fiscal 2019. But they have deprived the Palm Beach County School District of $178 million.

Realizing the gravity of the stakes, the school board put on the line a popular special tax that funds up to 650 teaching positions for art and other electives. The November referendum, if approved by voters, would quadruple that special tax, to $100 per $100,000 of taxable property value, to pay for much more than those teaching positions.

For the owner of a home with a $300,000 appraised taxable value and no exemptions, that would mean paying $300 a year, an increase of $225.

For the school district, victory or defeat for the tax hike is the difference between receiving an estimated $200 million per year — or losing $50 million a year and those 650 teachers.

The money is sorely needed.

Teachers are grossly underpaid. In inflation-adjusted dollars, average teacher salaries in Florida fell 5.5 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to Education Resource Strategies. Not only is teacher pay $8,387 lower in Florida than the national average of $57,379, it’s 14 percent lower than the family living wage.

Demands to strengthen school security have soared since the horrendous bloodshed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — but our school district is well shy of the money it needs to satisfy the new state law requiring at least one armed guard in every school building. It’s no more capable of placing at least one mental-health professional in each school, an increasingly glaring imperative.

Simply put, the school district can’t do these important things — bolster its police force, hire mental-health counselors and psychologists, pay teachers a respectable salary — without more money. That money won’t be coming from the tight-fisted state. It can’t be squeezed out of supposed fat in the budget. It must come from the community.

This is exactly what it sounds like: an all-or-nothing proposition for the school district. And the school board was right to put it all on the line. A popular arts tax. A decision to stand with our classroom teachers. A commitment to our students’ safety and mental health.

We can do no less. We need to take care of our own. Vote “yes” on Nov. 6 to approve the school property tax ballot intiative.


The proposed tax would raise an estimated $200 million annually to continue the arts programs, pay for a long-overdue boost in teacher pay, and fund state-mandated improvements in school security and on-campus mental health.

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