It’s an off-year election season. It’s not an off year for ballot measures. Several consequential local referendums and state constitutional amendments will be on the November 2 ballot. To answer some questions and add clarity to the issues, the Flagler Palm Coast Civic Association held an open forum on four of those measures at the county Realtors’ association’s headquarters on State Road 100 Thursday evening, before some 50 people.
The issues in question: Amendment 8, usually referred to as the class-size amendment; Amendment 4, better known as the “Hometown Democracy” amendment; the Flagler-only “economic development tax,” and the Flagler-only school tax continuation. Although the forum presented pro and con representatives for each issue, it was not quite a debate. The intent was to inform and clarify. Each side made its points, each side was afforded additional chances to address the issue, a few questions were fielded, and closing arguments delivered.
The Class-Size Amendment
In 2002, voters approved a constitutional amendment that gradually requires districts to limit class sizes to specific numbers. The requirement was phased in. Average class sizes were calculated broadly at first, with hard caps imposed in elementary grades first. The next step enabled schools to average out their entire student body against the number of teachers in that school, so some classes could exceed the harder caps if others were below it. The final step, in effect this year, was the imposition of universal hard caps in every grade: No more than 18 students per class in kindergarten through third grade, no more than 22 students in grades 4 through 8, and no more than 25 in grades 9 through 12. The caps apply to core subjects only—English, math, social sciences—not to such things as PE or art classes. But if the cap is exceeded, districts must pay stiff financial penalties.
Amendment 8 would scale back and recalibrate the hard cap. Districts would again be allowed the flexibility to have school-wide averages, rather than class-by-class limits. But those class-size limits, too, would be raised—to 21 students in the early grades, 27 students in the middle grades, and 30 students in the upper grades.
Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, has been arguing in circuit court to get the amendment off the ballot. The ballot language is deceptive, he says: It tells voters how class sizes will change, but it doesn’t tell them to what extent the state will reduce funding to schools as a consequence. He’s right. The amendment, if it’s successful, will unquestionably reduce funding. That’s why the Legislature is pushing it. Proponents of the amendment, however—school district administrators and local school boards chief among them—are pushing for it not because they like larger class sizes, but because they consider themselves to have no choice. The Legislature has been underfunding them anyway, forcing them to make do with less and still abide by the hard caps of the 2002 amendment.
Thursday’s evening debate between Meyer and Dance was more like a debate with Meyer and Dance on one side, and the invisible Legislature on the other.
“I don’t think there’s any dispute that the passage of Amendment 8,” Meyer said, “while it may very well have some beneficial purposes in the eyes of the proponents, it nonetheless goes back on what the people of Florida decided in 2002, when they directed in the constitution that classes be smaller.” That’s accurate, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a constitutional amendment was proposed to change or reverse a previous amendment. In 2000, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to build a high-speed “bullet train” across the state. The train would have included a Jacksonville-Miami leg. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush opposed it. He muscled through another amendment eliminating the bullet train in 2004. That amendment passed, and the train initiative died.
The difference with this year’s Amendment 8 is that it does not undo the 2002 amendment, but limits its categorical reach. Meyer, however, was on strong grounds when he attributed the origins of Amendment 8 to money, and the Legislature’s attempt to find more ways to reduce funding to public schools. It’s not the local school boards’ fault, he said, but the Legislature’s “funding failure.”
“The constitution doesn’t require an amendment to provide flexibility that we keep hearing is needed in schools,” Meyer said. “The Supreme Court of Florida made very plain in 2002 when it approved the class-size amendment back then that this was a funding requirement of the Legislature and not a hard cap. It gives the Legislature some latitude in designing some techniques in providing flexibility. However the Legislature’s decided it doesn’t want to do that. The Legislature has decided in Amendment 8 that it wants to reduce its defunding obligation to public schools. The Legislature has expended a lot of money on class size, $16 billion is the number that’s often talked about since 2002. That’s a significant amount of money. Let’s face it. But none of that money would have likely come to public schools had this amendment not been there to require it.”
Andy Dance, the school board member, wasn’t going to argue the “pro” side of Amendment 8. But O’Donnell was having trouble finding someone to speak for it. So Dance, who was already slated to speak for a school-tax measure on the ballot later in the association’s forum, agreed to speak for Amendment 8 as well. He portrayed the local school board as a victim of circumstances. The district is meeting the hard cap. If it didn’t, it would have to pay financial penalties. That does not appear likely, thanks to the introduction of “co-teachers” in some classes to lower the ratio.
“But I will tell you from having spent time in the schools already this year,” Dance said, “it’s not a lot of fun. It is very stressful on the principals there, having to lose teachers and shift teachers around from school to school. For us, there is no flexibility that is given, and it is very stressful on the students and the teachers.” It comes down to regaining some flexibility, Dance said, to ease that stress. He did not speak in generalities. Dance described how, to meet class-size requirements in Bunnell, which gained a few students this year, a gifted teacher at Rymfire Elementary (which lost some 140 students) had to be moved to Bunnell. “Go ask the people at Rymfire about having to lose that teacher, and they are not very happy about it,” Dance said (though in fairness to the numbers, the mere loss of a large number of students in one school and the gain of students in another would have compelled some shifting of teachers whether the amendment was in place or not.)
The “Hometown Democracy” Amendment
Next was the matter of Amendment 4, also known as the “Hometown Democracy” amendment. If passed, it would change the way local governments make changes to their comprehensive plan, the long-term vision and rules for any local government’s land uses—“super-zoning,” as one speaker put it. This would not affect routine zoning changes, most road construction or the overwhelming majority of day-to-day permitting and construction, private or commercial. It would affect exclusively large-scale land-use changes to comprehensive plans. Those plans are not supposed to be changed routinely anyway. State law limits local governments to two windows per year to make changes to their plans. Local governments have instead used the windows to stack such changes, essentially reducing comprehensive plans to symbolic blueprints with little lasting value. It favors developers and local governments hooked on development as a tax-revenue generator. But the serial changes are anathema to the original purpose of comprehensive planning.
The movement for Amendment 4 is a backlash. It would require comprehensive plan changes—and only comprehensive plan changes, which are supposed to be rare—to be approved by voters before going ahead. The amendment has thrown developers and local governments into a panic, though evidence is scant to nonexistent that requiring voters to have a say on comprehensive plans would have economic consequences. The housing crash in Florida was more severe than elsewhere because it was driven in large part by compulsive development enabled by the elimination of checks and balances that comprehensive plans in their original incarnation were once supposed to provide.
Greg Gimbert of Daytona Beach spoke for Amendment 4 at the forum. “In spite of how many people like to cast supporters of Amendment 4, I am no rabid environmentalist,” he started. “I race cars and motorcycles. For years I was the announcer at Pax Trax Motorcross Park here in Bunnell. Basically I’m a monster truck kind of guy that rather go four-wheeling in the woods. I detested politicians, I ignored local politics, I can’t afford to do that anymore. Neither can you all.”
Gimbert continued: “Today such changes happen quietly, hidden within reams of techno-babble in tiny little cryptic newspaper announcements that are so small you can’t read them, and with jargon you could never understand. They’re designed that way so regular folks can’t figure out what they’re doing. What are these changes intended to do? They allow a speculator to build something where it’s never intended to be. Like what? Well, they turn vital agricultural land into sprawling subdivisions. They drop apartment complexes on established neighborhoods. They’ve even recently been allowed to change to build a Walmart where a neighborhood school once stood. And worse still for the surrounding neighborhood, they turned their neighborhood drainage basin into Walmart’s parking lot, so congratulations on your new flooding folks. The results of these changes destroy our natural environment. They poison our rivers and lakes. They pave over our aquifer recharge area. They make you pay to run utilities where it was never intended to be, and collectively all these things decimate your state, your community and your home’s value. These changes have gone on for so long, to such an extent, that they’ve created this current glut of oversupply to the point that we can hardly give our houses away.”
Another Daytona Beach import argued against Amendment 4—Jim Cameron, the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for government relations. More earnest than silver-tongued, Cameron didn’t rely on data or his own arguments to make his pitch in favor of Amendment 4. He reached for editorial stances of the Daytona Beach News-Journal (including an editorial from the paper’s “old regime,” when it was, in Cameron’s words, filled with “staunch environmentalists”), editorial stances of 17 other newspapers, and opposition to the amendment by various chambers of commerce (state and local), as well as other pressure group.
And again without evidence, he relied on fear. “Amendment 4 as we see it,” Cameron said, “is going to hinder the economic future. The economy is going to get better. When, I don’t know, it will get better, but the economists all agree, you’re not going to see, even though it’s taken a sharp nosedive in the last couple of years, it’s gone down like that, it’s not going to turn around and go up straight in an arrow. It’s going to come back in spurts. It’s going to come back, it’s going to be fragile, I mean, any little thing can throw it off kilter, and this is something we can see it throwing it off kilter, Amendment 4. We don’t want to see a monkey wrench thrown in that recovery.”
He then urged listeners to look up his website and the opposition’s website on the matter.
Gimbert hadn’t bought the monkey-wrench argument. “I’m a technician with a nationwide telecommunications provider and I work in the construction department. If we don’t have construction, I don’t eat,” Gimbert said. “But can there be too much of a good thing? Obviously. Look at us now. Good development becomes overdevelopment when it overcrowds our roads and our schools.”
The Tax Proposals
The next two issues discussed at the forum were local tax issues. The “economic development tax” pushed by Enterprise Flagler, the public-private partnership, would raise property taxes by 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed value and use the $2 million in annual revenue to build commercial and industrial buildings as bait for potential, job-rich industries. The proposal has been hobbled from the start, however, and has had little support, especially from elected officials. It appears headed for defeat even before voters get their say on Nov. 2: there’s been behind-the-scenes discussions about pulling it from the ballot, though it may be too late to do so as a matter of law.
The tax’s proponents however are still going through the motions of defending it. Enterprise Flagler’s Greg Rawls and Mike Chiumento III spoke for the tax. The tea party movement’s Vince Liguori spoke against it, noting at the start of his argument that he was not there to speak for the tea party. (Asked about the local tea party’s stance on the tax, Tom Lawrence, one of the tea party’s leaders, said he was not taking an official position.)
The school tax is not a new tax. Property owners are already paying it and have been paying it for years, in Flagler County as in most counties. But until now, school boards had the authority to promulgate the tax by their own majority votes. The Legislature changed the law, forcing boards to put the surtax to a popular vote. That’s why the tax is referred to as a “continuation.”
By the time Andy Dance, the school board member, rose to speak in defense of the measure, the audience had thinned out, and no opponent to the measure had been found. That may bode well for supporters of the tax.