Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy wants to ask voters to raise school property taxes by $150 million a year, a move that could generate an influx of cash for security, mental health services and higher teacher salaries in the county’s public schools.
The high-stakes proposal, more than a year in the making, calls for asking county residents to quadruple a special property tax that pays for extra school services. If school board members approve his plan June 20, the proposal would go to county voters in November.
Fennoy’s proposal, published online by the school district this week in advance of the June 20 board meeting, comes as little surprise. Last month, district officials made a case to board members for a tax hike, saying that incremental spending increases from state lawmakers haven’t kept up with rising costs and new needs.
“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, said at the May 2 meeting.
But while county residents have a long history of backing special taxes to finance the public schools, the scale of the proposal carries risks for the district.
If voters reject it, the school district will not only miss out on the chance for extra cash, the entire special tax will be eliminated. That would mean a loss of nearly $50 million that the schools depend on each year.
Board member Karen Brill warned district officials last month to proceed carefully, saying that “if we ask for too much, we may be risking a whole lot.”
Reached Friday, she said that she had concerns about how the proposed tax hike will be explained to voters. But she said a lack of financial support from state lawmakers left the district with few alternatives.
“I’m not a fan of raising any types of taxes,” she said, “but I think we really are at a juncture where we don’t have any choice.”
Currently, the special property tax, set at $25 per $100,000 of taxable property value, generates almost $50 million a year to pay for more than 650 extra teaching positions in specialized choice programs and arts and music classes.
That’s in addition to the regular school property taxes set jointly by the school board and state lawmakers.
Fennoy’s proposal would raise the rate to $100 per $100,000 of taxable property value, generating $200 million a year.
For the owner of a home with a $300,000 appraised taxable value and no exemptions, the increase would mean paying an extra $225 a year in school taxes next year.
With small budget increases from state lawmakers in recent years, school district leaders say teacher salaries have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Marginal pay raises for teachers have prompted growing numbers of young educators to leave the profession.
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.
Quadrupling the extra property tax would let the district create significant salary hikes for teachers as they advance in their teaching careers, Burke said last month.
Teachers entering their fifth year, for instance, might receive an extra $5,000. Teachers entering their 10th year could receive an extra $10,000.
The money also could pay for expanded mental health services and equipment for school police officers.
The increase “will provide necessary funding to expand mental health staff in schools and sustain the growth of the school police force with officers and equipment,” Amity Schuyler, the school district’s chief of staff, said Friday.
While the county’s charter schools face many of the same financial pressures and new security requirements, Fennoy’s proposal would not provide any new tax dollars for charters.
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