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Voters asked to continue paying tax for music, art, PE teachers

The biggest enemy of the referendum asking Palm Beach County residents to continue paying a property tax for art, music and P.E. teachers in public schools might be its location at the end of a packed ballot.

“When you look at elections, when people vote, that first page gets all the votes and then it slacks off after that,” said Vernon Pickup-Crawford, a man paid to be the voice of the Palm Beach County School district to lawmakers.

The “Referendum to Continue an Ad Valorem Levy for School Operational Needs” resides at the end of the third ballot page.

Because the school district is run with taxpayer money and the money from this referendum goes into its coffers, the Superintendent, the School Board and staff are walking a fine line this year.

They are urging people to vote and to vote all the way to the last page. But they cannot advocate.

Instead, when speaking of the referendum, they must stick to the facts: This is not a new tax. This is asking voters to continue an old one. Last year, the tax raised $33 million and paid for 527 teachers in more than 120 schools, including every elementary school and 20 middle and high schools with choice programs.

The tax in question levies $25 per $100,000 in appraised property value, and has been paid by property owners in some form or other since 1981. Changes in state law put the onus on the local districts to seek voter approval for the first time in 2010.

Palm Beach County voters agreed, but the tax will expire on June 30, 2015. It’s up to voters to extend the tax for the next four years to June 30, 2019.

Next year, with property values on the rise, it would raise closer to $36 million, according to district Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke.

An independent finance committee appointed by the School Board oversees the spending to ensure the money goes only to the purposes designated on the ballot: “to fund teachers, as well as arts, music, physical education, career and academic programs.”

The referendum is endorsed by the Palm Beach County Council of PTAs, the districtwide parent association.

“If they want to continue to see fine arts in the schools, they need to support this,” said Sandy Roth, the countywide council’s president. “So that we can keep the jobs and keep fine arts in our schools.”

The teaching positions are distributed to every elementary school based on the number of students at each school, Burke said. This past school year, that equaled 112 art teachers, 109 music teachers and 132 physical education teachers.

The money also pays for 173 teachers at the district’s choice and magnet programs from elementary through high school, including magnets in medical science, computer technology and International Baccalaureate, the district reports.

That is more than 90,000 students who benefit from having these teachers and classes in their schools, the district calculates.

Per language in the referendum, the money cannot go to charter schools attended by more than 18,000 students in the county.

“The charter schools have their own governing board. I don’t have control over how they spend their money and we can’t lose one dime,” Superintendent Wayne Gent said.

While the ballot language was being developed, representatives for charter schools asked to get a piece of the pie. That did not happen, and as a group, they are not standing in opposition.

“The charter school movement will not oppose anything that’s good for kids or good for teachers. We wish we would’ve been included, but we’re not going to stand in the way,” said Ralph Arza, a consultant with the Florida Charter School Alliance.

Perhaps the most lengthy description of the downside of the referendum comes from the Palm Beach Republican Club, that lists both a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ for each ballot question on its website. On the pro side: “The $36M generated by the tax funds ongoing programs which would be disrupted if not renewed. ” If the tax did not pass, the money would have to come from reserves or from other programs or the programs would be “terminated.”

On the con, the argument includes: “Carving out a “special” .25 mil which may only be spent on certain items, limits the ability of the school board to make fiscal decisions… Special taxes such as this limit their flexibility.”

It also notes charter schools do not benefit from the tax.

Piles of studies tout various benefits of the arts in education, including reports of students doing better academically. And some argue that arts education simply makes for better-rounded people.

But those classes are often the ones that fall to the budget ax in tough economic times as the one the state is only now pulling away from, Gent said. The 2010 referendum spared the county such cuts.

The rest of the district’s budget has not been so fortunate. The most gaping hole this year was in its capital budget, where $66 million in projects such as re-roofing schools, building capacity for more technology, fixing air conditioners and buying more buses were dropped or put on hold because of the deficit.

About 15 other school districts have a similar referendums in play, either this year or sometime in their four-year election cycle, said Ruth Melton, director of government relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

“In some districts, it’s earmarked for technology, in some it’s art and music,” Melton said. “Trying to preserve a vibrant art and music program is a pretty compelling argument to make to the public.”

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