PBC public schools test the waters for another tax hike campaign

Palm Beach County public school leaders are gearing up to make a case to voters to raise school property taxes by as much as $153 million a year, saying the new money would mean enhanced school security, more mental health services and long-delayed teacher raises.

The school district has begun quietly polling voters to gauge their appetite for a new tax hike, and administrators on Wednesday made a hard sell for one to school board members, who would have to approve any effort to bring a tax hike to voters in November.

“This is kind of the only avenue we have if we want to change the conditions of our school district on the financial front,” Michael Burke, the district’s chief financial officer, told board members.

RELATED: The cost of a cop in every school could mean no raises for teachers

Some board members expressed support while others worried that voters may be reluctant to approve another tax increase for public schools. In November 2016, voters overwhelmingly agreed to raise the county sales tax by a penny per dollar to pay for construction and maintenance projects for schools and county and city government.

Twice in the last eight years, voters have approved an extra property tax of $25 per $100,000 of taxable property value. That’s in addition to the regular school property taxes set jointly by the school board and state lawmakers. The money pays for hundreds of extra teaching positions in specialized choice programs and arts and music classes.

On Wednesday, Burke urged board members to consider asking voters to quadruple the extra tax to $100 per $100,000 of taxable value. Board members are expected to decide June 20 whether to put the proposed hike on the November ballot.

The school board is expected to at least ask voters to renew the current extra tax. Board members could follow the district’s recommendation to quadruple it or ask for a smaller hike raising the tax rate to, for instance, $50 per $100,000 of taxable property value.

Board member Karen Brill said she wanted to make sure district officials gauge voters’ willingness to raise taxes before board members make a decision in June. Asking for too much, she said, could put the existing extra tax in jeopardy.

“Lets just be really careful,” she said. “If we ask for too much, we may be risking a whole lot.”

RELATED: To raise teacher pay, PBC public schools may ask voters to raise taxes

Educators have talked openly for months about asking voters to raise the extra property tax.

Hamstrung by incremental spending increases at the state level in recent years, school district leaders say teacher salaries have not kept pace with the rising cost of living, causing growing numbers of young educators to leave the profession in search of more lucrative careers.

At the same time, the Parkland school shooting led to new state requirements to increase the number of officers on school campuses and expand mental health services for students. The state provided money this year to cover most of the cost of expanding security and mental health, but it did so by removing nearly all new money for regular school expenses. Officials say this year they don’t expect to be able to give school employees significant raises.

Quadrupling the extra property tax would let the district create significant salary hikes for teachers as they advance in their teaching careers, Burke said. Teachers entering their fifth year, for instance, might receive an extra $5,000 instead of the incremental salary increases all teachers receive. Teachers entering their 10th year could receive an extra $10,000.

The money also could pay for a rich suite of mental health services and equipment for the 75 new officers the district is required to start hiring to ensure an armed officer at every school.

“We could have more teams of psychologists and counselors,” Burke said. “We could really have a great program that would lead the state.”

Burke warned board members that failing to ask local voters for help leaves the fate of the county’s public schools in the hands of state legislators who seem intent on reducing school services.

“Palm Beach County has a good track record of supporting our schools, and I’m hopeful that the community will rise to the challenge again,” Burke said.

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