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Flagler School District Hones Its Sales Pitch for New Tax Ahead of June 7 Referendum

| April 22, 2013

Campaign signs supportive of the referendum have gone up on school grounds, as at Rymfire Elementary in Palm Coast. (© FlaglerLive)

Campaign signs supportive of the referendum have gone up on school grounds, as at Rymfire Elementary in Palm Coast. (© FlaglerLive)

“It’s always about $”

“board is always spending $”

“Older citizens feel they have ‘done their part.’”

“If there are less students, why do they need more $”

The four lines, written in thick red marker beneath the title of “Negative Comments,” were the result of a brief brainstorming session among a handful of focus group participants last week on the Flagler County School Board’s proposed property tax levy. Voters get to vote on the referendum on June 7. It asks them whether they’d be willing to add the equivalent of 25 cents per $1,000 of taxable value on their property tax bill. (The referendum actually asks voters for double that amount, but half of it is the continuation of an existing levy. So the net additional tax would be the 25 cents.)

The $3.2 to $4 million in new dollars that would be generated annually (depending on property values’ health) would help restore the 45 minutes a day the school schedule lost in middle and high schools two years ago, because of cuts forced by reductions in state funding. It would hire 40 additional teachers, re-expanding curriculum choices, including electives, for students. It would help to pay for the return of school cops in elementary schools, ensuring that all school campuses have at least one school resource officer. And it would finance additional improvements to technology, mental health services and other needs currently short-changed.

But the timing of the referendum is tricky for the school district. Just last November the district asked for—and won—the renewal of a half-cent sales tax to pay for technology in schools. To go to voters less than a year later and ask them to approve yet another tax is a tougher sell. To do so on an odd day (June 7 is a Friday) may diminish turnout enough to give more polarized constituents disproportionate influence at the polls. The referendum may not be decided by centrists.

Those are among the reasons Colleen Conklin, the school board member, has been holding weekly focus group meetings with anybody who’ll show up—anybody who’ll have picked up on notices of the meetings on Facebook or elsewhere—every Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the superintendent’s conference rom on the third floor of the Government Services Building in Bunnell.

Conklin’s purpose is two-fold: to hear what residents are saying about the levy, if they’re saying anything at all, to hear their complaints, their issues, their concerns. Conklin then wants to use that information to then better hone her message as she disseminates information about the levy, or to educate the very people at those Wednesday meetings, and hope that they, in turn, will fan out in the community and campaign for the levy, armed with facts.

And she wants those residents to be able to answer the sort of questions posed under “negative comments” last Wednesday. True, it’s always about money, but that’s because every year for the past six years the district has had to make cuts and contend with relatively fewer dollars and more responsibilities. Of course the board is always spending money, but what else is it supposed to do to maintain its standards and educate 13,000 students a year under roofs that don’t leak?

“This should be a regular, ongoing meeting, it’s really about gathering input,” Conklin said.”

Only eight people showed up at last Wednesday’s meeting, however. They included Conklin. They included Winnie Oden, the principal at Everest, the alternative school, and a key member of the district’s security team. They included Deborah Williams, the executive director of the Flagler County Education Foundation, the district’s non-profit arm and outright levy advocate. And they included a reporter. That left all of four individuals who weren’t there by necessity—not a good sign for the district, if its intention is to build a grass-roots campaign and win the referendum.

But the board hasn’t at all been idle beyond that meeting. Today (April 22) it finalized a presentation that will be in the hands of every school board members and others who wish to explain what the referendum is about. (

The school board was scheduled to finalize the presentation as a group in a workshop unusually scheduled for 8 p.m. last Friday. The workshop had to be cancelled after a reporter noted to a board member that notice of it had not been posted on the district’s website, though it had been posted in the lobby of the Government Services Building. Technically that would have been sufficient to hold the meeting, but Superintendent Janet Valentine—who was livid when she found out that the meeting wasn’t properly noticed—chose to cancel it out of caution, to not give the impression that the board would in any way meet in less-than-transparent circumstances. On Monday, Valentine said she ended up meeting with most of the board members one-on-one, getting their sign-off on the presentation. (See the presentation at the foot of the story.)

“We have agreed on the sources of information that we’re going to use in the general presentation,” Valentine said, “and if a board member ants to change that presentation for their audience they can do that as long as all the numbers and the sources are the same.”

Even School Board Chairman Andy Dance, Valentine said, is “on board” with the presentation, after voting against going out for a full 50-cent levy. (Dance initially favored sticking with the 25-cent renewal, without the additional 25 cents.)

The presentation was partly influenced by Conklin’s Wednesday meetings, and was based on one principle: that every bit of information it contains must be factually verifiable beyond the shadow of a doubt.

As, for example, when a slide notes that the district’s locally generated school taxes have dropped $37.6 million over the past six years. It’s an arresting figure, though the state has made up some of that loss, which was caused by the precipitous drop in property values. Another arresting figure is the drop in the district’s total budget, not just its general fund: from $174 million in 2007-08 to $118 million this year, what one slide describes as the “loss of $55.6 million in revenue over six years.”

The slide is factually correct, but also somewhat misleading, or at least incomplete and not as dramatic as it appears: In 2007-08, the district was at the tail end of a building boom, with millions of dollars from the state and from local sources underwriting school construction. The boom is over, and with it, the dollars: no schools have been planned or built since, and the school population five years ago leveled off, and began declining last year.

Still, it is just as true that the state has simply ended distributing millions of dollars a year to local districts—the so-called PECO dollars, or Public Education Capital Outlay—for construction, improvements and maintenance. The Flagler district used to get millions in PECO funding. The money helped build schools, but it also helped fix roofs, rebuild driveways, refurbish classrooms and so on, investments the districts must continue to make in every one of its schools whether enrollment is increasing or declining. Those PECO dollars have dried out—not because the state doesn’t have them any more. It does. But it is now directing them exclusively to charter schools. It’s one of many examples of legislative changes in recent years that undermine the financing of traditional public schools (which have also lost per-pupil funding allocations) while favoring the privately run, but still publicly funded, charter schools.

It’s also another reason why districts like Flagler are having to turn to voters to make up for lost money.

Other slides in the presentation point to the loss in federal stimulus dollars, though those dollars were essentially meant as a one-time allocation (by the Obama administration and Congress in 2009), spread over several years, to counter the effects of the Great Recession. The dollars helped districts hold on to numerous teachers, but the dollars were not meant to be permanent. On the other hand, the federal sequester—the result of House Republicans’ refusal to go along with the Obama spending plan—is resulting in yet another cut in federal funding estimated at $1.5 million locally.

District employees and officers are not legally allowed to campaign explicitly for the referendum, at least while on the clock. Nor can they use resources of the district to push for or against a political issue, including the referendum. But there is nothing in law that prohibits either employees or officers of the district from expressing their opinions and campaigning for or against any measure as individuals, and of course voting accordingly. They simply have to do it outside the purview of their job. But there is a loophole that district officials are also exploiting, based, Conklin said, on an attorney general’s opinion, that does not stop the district or employees from using district dollars or time to disseminate information about a referendum, as long as the information does not include an outright endorsement. The entire campaign is designed with the “You Decide” tagline.

That, Conklin says, is what the district is doing, along with its board members and even some of its employees. But nobody is fooled: the information, rendered in the guise of pure information or “facts,” is clearly designed to sway voters in favor of the referendum. The “You Decide” tag-line is no more believable than Fox’s

For example, every school now is rimmed with strategically placed yard signs, paid for with district dollars, that don’t tell voters how to vote, but that clearly spell out what they may gain, in the district’s estimation, by voting in the referendum. The language of the signs leave no doubt about their intention. One, for example (also included in the presentation), asks the following questions:

Is a quality education important?
Is prevention important?
Are the arts important?
Is peace of mind important?
Is restoring 45 minutes of instructional time important?
Are academics important?
Is security important?
Are our children important?

The questions, of course, ask questions that no one in their right mind would say no to-and that could be asked at any time, in any circumstance, by the richest or poorest school district. This district is hoping that the “yes” to those questions would somehow translate into a yes vote on June 7.

“I feel confident and comfortable presenting something like this,” Conklin says.

flagler-schools-tax-presentation

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26 Responses for “Flagler School District Hones Its Sales Pitch for New Tax Ahead of June 7 Referendum”

  1. Realty Check says:

    It’s all important, but bailing out the school board will teach them that they never have to find a way to balance the budget, they are like a consumer who spends more then they make, just ask for a bail-out. I am all for our kids getting a proper education, but the FCSB needs to make hard decisions, like getting rid of an assistant superintendent, cutting administration positions, have not seen any real focus by them. To me this is just a way to get the money with out having to commit political suicide, where is a sign a good faith by the board, did they offer to take a pay cut? When your budget at home is off, you have a choice get a second job or cut back, not ask for money so you can maintain your lifestyle with no sacrifice by YOU.

    • GET REAL says:

      Take your 40,000 dollar income and put it down to 28,000 dollars and then let someone tell you to cut back, or live within your means. These kids are getting jipped on their quality of education….Less classroom time, no field trips, etc. Was it some guy named kennedy who said ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. You want to improve the fiscal health of your county, than don’t worry about the 50 dollars more it will cost you for the entire year. That is one time out to dinner. Get a grip

  2. PJ says:

    It seems the school board has been careful with spending in recent years. The state cuts have hurt every school board everywhere.

    We as residents need to do two things. Get and vote and say yes to the tax increase with one very good message to the School Board!

    “DON’T COME BACK TO THE WELL IF YOU DON’T MANAGE THIS BUCKET OF CASH PROPERLY”

    But vote yes on behalf of our children and teachers!

  3. r&r says:

    This school board just does not get it. When things get tight on money issues at home you adjust and “LIVE WITHIN YOUR MEANS”..

  4. kmedley says:

    Wow! The School Board is using district funds, folks, that’s our tax dollars, to fund a campaign designed to manipulate voters and take advantage of historic low voter turnout for a Special Election, scheduled for a Friday, to effect a tax increase for the county as a whole. Sandy Hook is being used to tug at the heartstrings of “momma and pappa” bears and anyone who dares to speak in opposition is painted as a cold-hearted ________ (you fill in the blank). Now that’s they way to present an argument for needed revenue!

    These signs, which line the parent/student pick-up driveways of all the schools, are before a captive audience, do not include the political disclaimer required by law, are set on public property, paid for by our tax dollars, and as the Flaglerlive points out, are anything but fair and balanced. The QR code on the signs previously linked to a Protecting Flagler’s Future presentation on the Flagler County School homepage. When equal time was requested for the opposition side, the link was taken down, and equal access was denied. The informational meetings are being conducted on public property and I doubt if the opposing view point is being presented with the same vigor.

    The School Board made the decision to place the 1/2 cent sales tax on the ballot last year and were prepared to have this levy, the .25 mill, sunset and make hard choices. Now, a tragedy is being exploited for capital gain. That is the true tragedy.

  5. Joe Joe says:

    They will have my support. Anything we can do to make our children’s education better…

  6. Maryjoe says:

    I’m voting against it and I don’t appreciate you wasting much needed money on this campaign nor do I appreciate the money being wasted on this ‘special election’. Nor do I appreciate you are not putting it out there what you actually said to the commission when you asked for the election: “She said the School Board has cut its budget for the past six years and was prepared to do so again until last December.
    “But, then there was a game-changer with Sandy Hook Elementary,” Conklin said. “We did an extensive safety assessment, the whole picture, and that came with a price tag. We’ve talked about putting (school resource officers) back in all the schools. We understand crazy is crazy, but we want to put in some layers of safety.”http://www.news-journalonline.com/article/20130318/NEWS/303189972 So you through in some other issues just in case people don’t agree that resource officers are actually needed or they don’t agree with what you would pay them.
    I’m voting no. Your budget is fine. You said so yourself. You weren’t worried about ALL those things before so why now? You are being disingenuous. So… no. Until you show up the plan for the ‘layers of safety’ and we can see it’s not a waste of money, no.

  7. Ken Dodge says:

    FlaglerLive says, “It asks them whether they’d be willing to add the equivalent of 25 cents per $1,000 of taxable value on their property tax bill. (The referendum actually asks voters for double that amount, but half of it is the continuation of an existing levy. So the net additional tax would be the 25 cents.)”

    Is this really pinky-swear true? Isn’t half of it is set to expire, so that the ‘net’ additional tax woul be 50 cents?

    • FlaglerLive says:

      Ken, the .25 is set to expire, yes, but the net effect on the bill is not a .50 increase, but a .25 increase: a renewal of a tax is not the same as adding a new tax, anymore than, say, the renewal of a gas tax is not a new tax.

  8. confidential says:

    This is what happens when Conservatives in government push for privatization…like now taking away from our traditional public run schools to fund privately run (for profit, but labeled “non profit, who are they kidding”) charters.
    This is what takes place, higher school taxes demanded/needed. So keep on voting GOP and opening your wallets.

  9. Bob Z. says:

    Are they going about it the way they might have? Maybe not but look at what the money will be used for…it will help the children and they are our future so I am voting “YES”.

    • Brad W says:

      Bob Z.,

      No one is against the children, but there is a time when a community should question. This is one of those times. Because it’s never enough and why?

      1. We all pay the most to schools in our tax bills. They get the highest millage rate.

      2. Why does 45 minutes in a school day cost over $2 million of OUR money?

      3. IF safety is such a concern, why is there no focus on eliminating the 2-mile and 1-mile rules for transportation?

      A “No” vote doesn’t take from our students. Our schools are well taken care of here, and they will continue to be. Mrs. Conklin disagrees with the School Board and says they have $148 million. The news today from US News is from 2010 results (a time when the schools weren’t “getting enough” then either) and they seemed to have done just fine then. It’s time for real answers and real financial responsibility from everyone involved in our schools.

  10. Dave says:

    I would like to see a recent salary report from the school board members from the top to the bottom, them if I do not see a bunch of over paid people I will vote yes but if I see what I believe to be a waste I would vote no, Is it possible to get this before the vote?

    • kmedley says:

      Dave –

      The information you seek is easily attainable through a public records request, as long as a report does not have to be created. You should be able to submit a request requesting payroll records for the school board members and any other administrative positions for any time frame range of your choosing. Depending on how the records are stored. it may be as simple as providing you with a PDF document or copies may need to be made. If copies are required, you will need to pay for the records. I think it is $.15 per page (single copy).

  11. Mcsmiley64 says:

    I’m voting yes. I believe it comes out to be about $2.00 a month on the average house in Palm Coast. I can see the need for improvements to the facilities to improve security. Those improvements cost money.

  12. duh says:

    This tax has nothing to do with the children and stop using that as an excuse. I saw the signs last week and think it is disgraceful to shove this down our throat.

    Request a mail in ballot for those that work for the sneaky Friday Vote. Please vote no to this nonsense which only reflects on the Superintendent and the School Board.

  13. Realty Check says:

    I have no issue with the money, its how they refuse to make serious cuts in the budget to make ends meet. I was so disgusted by our school district that I put my child in private school, I know not everyone can make that financial choice. My issue is how in the heck do you add positions to the administration in the past two years when you know you do not have the money to support them. Cuts have been deep around the world, public and private sector, should a company be able to just say we cannot make ends meet we need money? where does that small business get the capitol? they don’t, they make cuts. The FCSB is out of touch with what really needs to be done, but politcal suicide will not give Andy Dance hhis $30,000 a yaer part time salary, I guess he may want to get his lawn mowers tuned up because I plan to vote him out.

  14. Gia says:

    NO MORE TAX ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. IT”S NOT WORTH IT.

  15. confidential says:

    @Dave. You will be amazed by the some high salaries and this was just the 2010 public record. Imagine today’s. http://p.news-journalonline.com/article/99999999/MULTIMEDIA/120819889

    FLAGLER COUNTY SCHOOLS: District personnel 2010 public records some examples:
    Superintendent in 2010 $95,000. Superintendent 2013 $145,000.00, plus benefits.
    Exec Dir Fiscal $105,345.00
    Dir Fiscal $70,125.00
    Curriculum Spec. $84,457.00,
    Dir Curr 9-12 $100,612.00
    Dircurr Pk?8 $92,693.00
    Adult Ed Counselor $73,205.00
    Dir Pers $100,612.00
    Senior Director Ops $94,980.00
    Behavior Spec $70,868.00
    Non job description $74,342.00 ..?
    Non job description $59,949.98..?
    Non job description $70,274.89..?
    Non job description $52,095.13..?
    Program Manager $53,819.56
    Manager, Fleet $70,062.00
    Supervisor Maint $56,574.00
    Staffing Spec $71,829.00
    Curriculum Spec $68,894.00
    Maintenance Director $89,386.00
    Dir It $78,233.00
    Ese Staffing Spec $74,308.00
    Curriculum Spec $65,002.00
    Dir Purchasing $65,847.00.
    Purch Agent Const $53,523.56
    Dir Mis $59,935.00
    Dir Flag Ed Found $52,423.00
    Ese Staffing Spec $56,806.00
    …and the 2010 salaries list of high paid is longer.

  16. r&r says:

    Dave good luck in trying to get the boards pay including all the perks and under the table deals from relatives to friends..

  17. Anon says:

    This board is using your tax dollars to promote and campaign for a tax increase!

    Does anyone else see the fallacy behind that logic?

    How dumb are the people that support them?

  18. DLF says:

    So now we are having meetings to see what the general publics thinks,funny it is on the eve of the request to increase the tax and spending,a little too late ,Colleen. Instead of asking how we feel you should explain where are money is currently going ,besides increases in salary for poor performance. It is not going to fly,people in general are fed up with the lack of performance our kids are currently receiving. The school board should look in the mirror they may find the problem looking back at them.

  19. IMO says:

    “Both of Flagler County’s high schools earned silver medals in U.S. News’s rankings. Matanzas High School ranked 72nd in Florida, out of 777 schools. Matanzas was 1,523rd in the nation, out of 21,000 schools. Flagler Palm Coast High School ranked 87th in the state, and 2,242nd in the nation. The data used for the rankings is based on 2010 figures.”

    Of course the Vote will be YES on June 7th. As you can read above the staffs and the students have earned the right to ask for this small increase in taxes.

    Time to say “Thank You” for keeping our property values stabilized. If you follow Real Estate at Trulia.com one of the main questions asked by people looking to relocate to Palm Coast is “How are the schools?”

    The usual answer: “The schools are great!”

    Or would you prefer people answered “Not so good.”

    Remember the old adage: “If the Jewel on the Hill in a community is not the schools then potential homeowners (especially Mothers() will look elsewhere.”

    .25 cents per thousand to hire 40 additional Teachers and restore the 45 minutes a day the school schedule is a bargain.

  20. Think About it says:

    I’d like to know why the parents of these children rely on OUR tax dollars to teach their children what they should be or should have taught them in the first place…WASTE of TAX DOLLARS…VOTE NO!

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