Trevor Tucker is undecided. Board member Andy Dance is against it. But “The Girls,” as the three other Flagler County School Board members like to refer to themselves—Board Chairwoman Evie Shellenberger, Sue Dickinson and Colleen Conklin—have already decided it: The school board will ask voters to approve a school tax on the Nov. 2 ballot because, they say, the district can’t afford to drop $2 million when it faces a potential loss of $7 to $9 million next year.
The board, following former Superintendent Bill Delbrugge’s recommendation, looked like it had killed the idea earlier this summer. But following a deft move by Superintendent Janet Valentine, the issue was revived at a meeting this week, and Valentine got her way. (Read the full story of Valentine’s skillful revival of the issue here.)
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That school tax will compete with another that’s already made it onto the ballot: the “economic development” tax officially put forward by Enterprise Flagler, the public-private partnership, but conceived and endorsed by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. That tax would pay for new, large commercial office or light industrial buildings in the county to entice large companies to move in.
Both taxes are for the same amount: $0.25 for every $1,000 in any property’s taxable value. So the typical home in Flagler County, assessed at $150,000, and with a homestead exemption, would pay an extra $25 a year for the commercial-building tax. But the levy for schools would be slightly higher–$31 for that $150,000 home—because only half the $50,000 homestead exemption may be applied to school taxes. Conversely, the school levy would raise $2 million at current valuations, the commercial-building tax would raise about $1.8 million.
There’s a major difference between the two taxes. The commercial-building tax would be entirely new. The school tax is not new. Property owners are already paying it. The reason it will appear on the ballot is because of a shell game turned into law by the Florida Legislature earlier this year: until now, school boards have had the authority, year after year, to vote for the extra revenue tax. The Flagler County School Board has been doing so routinely, and generating the consequent revenue. Three years ago, when school valuations were at $12.3 billion, the tax brought in an extra $3 million. That revenue has been cut by a third because property values have fallen by a third, which is why the tax would now bring in just $2 million next year.
The new law still allows school boards to raise that extra revenue locally, but it forces boards to put the levy to referendum. Boards may no longer approve it. It’s up to voters. It’ll look like a new tax on the November ballot, but in fact voters have been paying for it all along, making that school levy a continuation of an existing tax—not an additional tax. School board members will be at pains to explain that one to voters in the coming months, knowing that most voters won’t get it: a tax on a ballot is usually interpreted as a new tax.
The commercial-building tax is a new tax. And no matter how either the chambers’ champions of that tax or the school system’s champions of the school tax interpret their levies, the two taxes will either undermine each other or put voters in a difficult choice, if they don’t want to vote for both. They’ll have to decide between paying for school services (the school tax helps pay for teachers, substitutes, school programs and the like) at a time of severe budget cuts in schools as opposed to paying for commercial buildings that may or may not bring companies to town several years from now (at a time of severe unemployment).
Board members during and after the July 20 meeting explained their positions.
“We’re at the bone now,” Conklin said. “You cut $2 million, and if the state doesn’t come up with a plan for the stimulus money, the bottom line is we’re looking at a $7.4 million funding cliff. It’s not popular, but it would almost be irresponsible for us not to really consider putting that forward. The .25 in particular, being that it’s continued funding, I actually think it will pass. I think it will pass. But I will say that I think it will do harm to the economic development piece that’s on the ballot. If people have a choice, they’re going to pick the schools over that, and I think that that may be some of the original reasons why we did not move forward to put the .25 on the ballot. But I wasn’t elected to mind the economic development other than making sure we have a prepared workforce for them. I mean, really, truly, if you think about it, economic stimulus? If you cut sports, if you cut afterschool programming, if you cut—I mean, what’s left to cut? If you cut those, those are the things that keep students in school. If you cut the programming that keeps kids in school, it’s all cyclical. It’s all going to come around. ”
Shellenberger, who didn’t actually say which way she’d go during the meeting, clarified afterward, unequivocally: “I believe we should put it on the ballot, so that if it doesn’t pass, or when we get to that cliff that falls off, we have tried, it is a continuation of money, it’s not new money, so it’s a continuation of money, and that we have at least taken that effort to try to keep generating funds to keep generating funds for the programs we’ve got going on.”
Dickinson was not as enthusiastic. “I hate to say that I don’t think it’ll pass but I don’t think it’ll pass,” she said. “So if it’s not going to cost us to put it on the ballot what’s the harm in putting it out there?” The public would have to be educated and convinced that it’s not a new tax.
And Dance was flatly opposed, because he was more concerned about another levy the school district will be asking voters to renew in 2012—a half-penny sales surtax that pays for construction and technology in the schools. The county and Palm Coast will also be asking voters to renew a half-penny sales tax of their own at the same time. “My opinions haven’t changed,” Dance said. “I’m still not in favor of going out. I think we’re going to kill ourselves in the long run by having the referendum out at the same time as the economic development, and I think the backlash will be felt when we go out for the half-penny, and I think the half-penny is too important as a 10-year duration, for the capital and the technology.”
Asked why he was non-committal, Tucker said it was because of the other levy already on the ballot: “Economic development. I don’t know if two things on the ballot at one time would just crush both of them, or if one has a chance or not. But I’m going to ask around, and I’m going to get some other people’s opinion on it, if they think it’ll crush the ballot for both of them.” When asked which he would pick if he had to make a choice, Tucker said: “I’d pick the school system all day long. But I want to talk to the economic development people and ask them how they feel if they have any chance at all. Because I don’t think they have a chance. But if they say we really really really think we’re going to make this, we’re really really going to do this, then I probably might not want to go out for .25. But now, if they say, it doesn’t look good, then I’m going to say we’re going to throw it on there.” Will they actually tell Tucker they don’t have a chance? “I hope so. I hope they tell me the truth. The truth would be right now, I don’t know if anyone has a chance unless we can get out there really, really pushing it, and we’re really going to have to stress: this is a continuation, nothing new.”