Editorial: Weigh property tax hike for teacher salaries carefully


We suppose it was inevitable.

The Palm Beach County School Board is considering whether to ask voters this fall to raise their property taxes as much as $153 million a year to pay for, among other things, better salaries for teachers.

RELATED: PBC public schools test the waters for another tax hike campaign

To be sure, if voters approved a ballot initiative, some of the extra money would be used 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.

But make no mistake, this is really about a long-delayed raise for school teachers. And rightly so. Neither the county, nor the state for that matter, are alone with this problem. Teacher salaries have become a flashpoint of protests across the country.

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But levy an additional tax on property owners? The district has reportedly begun polling the public — and must be hearing negative rumblings that this proposed ask is coming too soon after voters, in November 2016, overwhelmingly approved raising the county sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for construction and maintenance projects for schools, and county and city governments.

“Not once but twice, (local) voters have voted to annually pay $25 more in tax per $100,000 of taxable property value (to support arts education),” wrote Jim Rich, of Jupiter, in a May 9 letter to the editor. “Now the School Board wants to possibly quadruple that, (asking instead) for an additional $100 per $100,000 of taxable property value.”

The school board would be foolish not to take such sentiments and concerns into account.

They would also be wise, however, to remember how they got here. To a place where Florida now ranks 49th among the states in per-capita spending for K-12 schools, and 35th in teacher pay, according to the National Education Association. To a place where elementary-secondary teachers in Florida earn an average $49,199. (That’s $9,154 less than the U.S. average.) And to a place where teachers are going into their own pockets an average of $479 every year for classroom supplies, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report released Tuesday.

The Republican-led Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott have short-changed the state’s public schools for years — at first at the expense of budget cuts during the Great Recession, and now behind the excuse of education reform.

Overall education spending has increased. But as we’ve said previously, those increases have yet to catch up to the aforementioned cuts because of inflation.

This budget year lawmakers added insult to injury. Touting the same old tired and deceptive refrain of “increasing per-pupil spending to a record high,” Scott and GOP lawmakers dictated that most of the increase go to security mandates and other pet “reform” initiatives such as tuition vouchers that allow students bullied in traditional public schools to transfer to private schools.

Then lawmakers had the gall to refuse to spend $377 million in revenues generated by rising property values, on the ideological grounds that doing so would be a tax increase. And they gave away $170 million in general tax cuts.

That means the average base amount that the county’s schools receive per student is rising by just 0.04 percent, or $2.17 per student, according to district figures.

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

That’s not going to go very far when you count paying an extra $4 million this year to cover employees’ state pensions, and new spending for initiatives such as expanding PSAT testing and the iReady adaptive software program used in elementary schools.

In November, county teachers won an acrimonious fight to get a 3.2 percent average increase for the current academic year. But next year, “the outlook is poor,” district Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke has told the school board.

Burke said that quadrupling the popular 25-cent “arts tax” would let the district create significant salary hikes for teachers as they advance in their careers. Teachers entering their fifth year, for instance, might receive an extra $5,000 instead of the incremental salary increases all teachers receive. Those entering their 10th year could receive an extra $10,000.

But the school board risks endangering the arts tax, which has enjoyed strong voter support. That is not an easy decision. Nor should it be.

Perhaps the main question for voters is not whether a property tax hike to help pay for teacher salaries is warranted but whether Palm Beach County is prepared to be the next Arizona, Oklahoma or West Virginia.



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