The Other Tax Referendum: School District Battles Misperceptions to Preserve Levy
FlaglerLive | September 22, 2010
Two tax referendums are appearing on the Nov. 2 general election ballot. One of them has been written about copiously. That’s the tax-and-build “economic development” proposal that would increase property taxes and use the revenue to build industrial structures that might attract new industry. That proposal has little chance of passing.
The other tax referendum is for the school district—a small tax that generates about 2 percent of the district’s revenue and helps pay for teachers and various programs. It’s not actually a new tax. You’ve been paying it for years. The Flagler County School Board had been approving it on its own, as it does with the near-totality of school taxes until the Legislature last year decided that, if it is to remain on the books, voters would have to approve the tax themselves.
- How Janet Valentine Shifted the School Board on a Tax Levy
- In a Shift, Andy Dance Joins Unanimous Vote for School Tax Referendum in November
- How the Chamber’s Tax Proposal Undermines Schools, Cities and the County
- The Flagler County Tea Party Group
- School Board Approves $166 Million Budget; Tea Party’s Response Is Mostly Decaffeinated
So that’s what you’ll see on the Nov. 2 ballot: a referendum on a 25-cent-per-$1,000 property tax that translates to about $31 a year on the median Flagler County homeowner’s tax bill.
Let’s say it again: it’s not a new tax, but a continuation of an existing tax, one that generates more than $2 million for the district.
To voters, a tax is a tax. To 2010 voters, particularly those under the spell of tea party dogma, the only good tax is a tax repealed. To the school district, the challenge is two-fold: First, the district would like you to vote for the tax, but it can’t tell you that outright. School employees, including board members, are not allowed to campaign for the issue, or advocate for it, at least not as representatives of the school district. That’s to prevent schools from becoming political playgrounds. But they can advocate for it as individuals. It’s up to the district and its employees to figure out where that fine line is—and not cross it.
Second, the district wants to be sure that voters don’t see the referendum as adding a new tax. That’s where voter education comes in. Tuesday evening, the five members of the Flagler County School Board agreed to each hold a town meeting where they’ll talk about the tax and blend education with as much advocacy as they can get away with.
Tuesday morning, the Flagler County Education Foundation, a non-profit organization headquartered in the school superintendent’s executive suite, held a strategy session with its board to figure out how to involve the business and civic community, spread the message, and create a political action committee to do so. A PAC would be allowed to raise money (the goal is $5,000) and spend it on campaign advertising, for example, including signs, advertising and brochures.
Andy Dance, the school board member’s point man on the school tax, briefed the foundation board through a slide presentation he’s still perfecting for subsequent showings around the county. But the board had trouble winning commitments from members to form a PAC, though Flagler Parent magazine publisher Charlie Michaux agreed to throw a fund-raising party.
One reason for the hesitancy over who should lead the PAC is the board’s membership. On one hand, some members are too closely associated with the district to lead a political action committee. On the other, several members around the table are the same individuals most intimately involved in the other tax referendum—Patrick Kelly, the Flagler chamber of commerce’s chairman, Garry Lubi of Prosperity Bank, and John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer publisher. At this point, any association between the tax-and-build referendum and the school tax would be a liability for the school tax’s chances, as voters would see a kind of pile-on synergy between the two that school tax advocates are struggling against.
Walsh and Kelly though agreed to recruit others who might lead the PAC, Kelly’s reservations aside.
“There would need to be a concerted effort to gain funds from school district employees,” Kelly said. “I as a voter, why would I want to write a check to support this if there isn’t significant support from within the school system?”
School Board member Colleen Conklin, who was also at the table—and who’s taking as vocal a lead in favor of the tax as she can—had no idea where Kelly’s notion that school employees were not supporting the measure was coming from. The problem so far is a matter of awareness: few people, school employees or others, know that the referendum is on the ballot. Fewer still know why it’s there, or what it would pay for. That’s the idea behind the education foundation’s planning: to replace rumor or ignorance with solid fact.
But the effort is launching late, in part because the school board back in summer, under a different superintendent, had agreed not to place the tax on the November ballot. Superintendent Janet Valentine reversed the board’s direction last month, fearing a “funding cliff” ahead, when the district risks losing state and federal dollars in amounts large enough to wipe out its $7 million reserves.
“This really should have probably done a month ago,” Conklin said.