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

5:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 Local
Palm Beach County School District leaders are considering asking voters to raise a special property tax, which could bring in nearly an additional $45 million per year. (File art via Pixabay)

Palm Beach County public school leaders are making plans to ask voters to approve a special property tax next year to boost teacher salaries, saying that substantial pay hikes for teachers will be impossible without a new money source.

The proposal is still being mulled by school district leaders but is expected to lead to voters being asked to approve roughly $45 million a year in new property taxes countywide to help combat high teacher turnover.

Ten percent of the county school district’s 12,500 public school teachers resign or retire each year, a growing problem that educators blame in part on the flattening of teachers’ pay scale during and after the Great Recession.

Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer, told teachers union leaders Wednesday that the school district won’t be able to provide significant raises for experienced teachers with the incremental financing boosts that the state Legislature has doled out in recent years.

The best solution, Burke said, would be to ask voters next November to approve a special property tax increase, which would generate tens of millions of dollars in new money that could be steered toward boosting teacher salaries.

“To do this right we need major revenue,” Burke said, “and there is an opportunity on the near horizon.”

RELATED: PBC school leaders, union agree to 3.2% average raise for teachers

Since 2010, voters have approved a special property tax that pays for extra teaching positions to support arts, music, physical education and specialized choice programs. The money is raised by levying an extra $25 per $100,000 in appraised property value on properties countywide.

Last year the tax generated $43 million, which paid for about 600 teaching positions at the school district’s approximately 180 schools.

That tax has to be reauthorized by voters in November, and school district leaders are considering asking voters to double the tax rate, which could bring in nearly an additional $45 million per year.

“Potentially there is a revenue source there if we can build a good case,” Burke said. “If we’re going to solve this, it’s going to be a Palm Beach County solution.”

The decision on whether to put the tax hike on the November 2018 ballot rests with the county school board. Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said he is assembling a committee of district and union officials to study the possibility and report back in two months.

While the committee will likely explore other ways to find extra money to boost teacher pay, Avossa said raising the special property tax “seems to me to be the only viable option.”

Avossa said an influx of extra money could be used to boost the pay scales for teachers at poor and low-performing schools, where teacher turnover tends to be higher, as well as provide higher pay for teachers in high-demand fields such as teaching disabled students.

But administrators say the principal objective would be to address one of the county teachers union’s top priorities – giving pay boosts to senior teachers who missed out on years of raises during the Great Recession and its aftermath.

The starting salary for county teachers is $41,000, but many teachers with more than 15 years of experience earn less than $50,000. Educators say the slow growth in teachers’ salaries encourages young teachers to flee to other professions.

To combat that, Avossa said the influx of money could be used to create extra pay boosts at key points in teachers’ careers, for instance at their fifth, 10th and 15th years of employment.

“How do I get teachers to stay in the classroom?” he said. “When do teachers leave the school system? Most of our teachers leave before five years.”

County voters have tended for years to support tax hikes to support the public schools. The extra property tax has been approved twice, in 2010 and 2014, and last year voters overwhelmingly approved raising the county sales tax to 7 percent from 6 percent.

Half of the new sales tax money supports the school district’s construction, maintenance and technology needs. By law, that money can’t be used to pay for teacher salaries or most other day-to-day operations.

Justin Katz, president of the county’s teachers union, said that “something has to be done” to combat the growing rate of teachers leaving the profession, something he said has worsened with the gradual flattening of teachers’ pay scale.

“If we want to be able to attract and retain quality educators and keep those who have been teaching, there has to be some additional source of revenue,” he said. “The quality of our work will only decrease over time if you start to phase out the best teachers.”