PBC school board puts property tax increase on November ballot

Palm Beach County residents will vote in November on whether to raise property taxes to provide more money for teacher salaries and campus safety in the county’s public schools, school board members decided Wednesday.

By a 7-0 vote, board members agreed to place a proposed tax hike on the Nov. 6 ballot that would raise school property taxes by an estimated $150 million a year for four years.

It will be the second time in two years that the school board asks voters to raise taxes to finance the county’s public schools. But board members said state lawmakers’ decision to lower school property tax rates for the past four years left them little choice.

“Unfortunately the changes in the world have been brought to our doorstep,” board member Karen Brill said. “We have no choice. We need our village, our taxpayers, to help.”

School district leaders pointed out that four years of cuts in the school board’s tax rate – which is largely controlled by the state Legislature – have prevented the district from reaping most of the benefits of the county’s rising property values.

And the recent increases in per-student money that public schools did receive haven’t been enough to keep pace with rising costs, officials said. This school year, per-student funding will increase by 1.1 percent, with most of the increase required to be spent on beefing up school security.

RELATED: Private polling boosted PBC schools’ push for a $150 million tax hike

The referendum approved Wednesday bars the county’s charter schools from receiving a portion of the tax proceeds, a move that angered charter leaders and parents. Several told board members that it was unfair to bar their students from benefiting from the enhanced security and higher teacher salaries that the extra money would afford.

“You are knowingly discriminating against charter school students just because they are attending a school of choice,” said Linda Terranova, principal of Western Academy charter school in Royal Palm Beach. “You are discriminating against a group of children because they attend a public charter school.”

Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy originally recommended sharing the tax revenue with the county’s 48 charter schools but reversed course after receiving opposition from some board members.

Board members said Wednesday that they did not want to distribute more taxpayer dollars to charters, which are privately operated, because they could not guarantee the schools would spend the money properly.

“It’s frustrating,” School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said, observing that many charter schools are well-run. “We’re in a no-win situation with the charter school issue, but I’m not willing to spend money unless I knew it (would be spent properly.)”

Even though charter schools would be excluded from any tax proceeds, board members said they would consider giving the charters extra money for security purposes from some other source.

RELATED: In reversal, PBC schools chief says to exclude charters in tax push

The November referendum, if approved by voters, would quadruple a special tax that property owners pay in addition to regular school property taxes.

The special tax has been in place for decades but has to be re-approved this year.

Currently, it levies $25 per $100,000 of taxable property value. The November referendum would raise the rate to $100 per $100,000 of taxable property value.

For the owner of a home with a $300,000 appraised taxable value and no exemptions, that would mean paying $300 a year, an increase of $225.

The hike would raise the amount collected countywide from roughly $50 million this year to an estimated $200 million next year.

Of that amount, the school district proposes that $100 million would be spent raising teachers salaries, which have not kept pace with inflation in recent years. Another $50 million would be spent on school security and mental health services. And the remaining $50 million would continue paying for more than 650 teaching positions.

But if voters reject the tax hike, the school district will lose the $50 million a year it depends on today to pay for those teaching positions.

“If this referendum does not pass, hard times are going to fall on Palm Beach County,” said Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer. “The pain that’s felt throughout our schools will be very real.”

RELATED: Editorial: Don’t like raising school taxes? Blame Florida Legislature

County voters have consistently supported tax increases to benefit schools in recent decades. A private poll conducted in May on the school district’s behalf indicated 59 percent of voters supported the referendum when first asked, with their support increasing as the polled voters learned about the potential benefits.

But some school district leaders worry that voters will be skeptical of another tax hike for public schools two years after being asked to raise the county sales tax.

In 2016, 57 percent of voters approved raising the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent for a decade, with the school district receiving half of the proceeds and the county’s municipal governments splitting the other half. All told, the extra “penny tax” is expected to raise an extra $2.7 billion over 10 years for construction, maintenance, repairs and new equipment.

“For me, the elephant in the room is, what happens if the referendum does not pass?” Brill said. “What is our contingency plan?”

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