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FL: School district gets the vote out

Summary: By being forthcoming with the community, this district was able to get out the vote and secure a tax increase to raise teacher salaries and boost reading and arts programs.


With teachers leaving the Pinellas County School District for higher salaries in neighboring states, the Pinellas County School Board and the local education association spearheaded a grassroots movement that won a tax increase to raise teacher salaries and bolster reading and arts programs. How did the district rally the

District characteristics
Name: Pinellas County SD
State: Florida
Type: Suburban
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 113,859
Students per teacher:

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 39.9%
English language learners: 2.7%
Students with disabilities: 17.6%
White: 68%
Black: 19%
Hispanic: 6.6%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.2%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.3%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com
support of the community?

“People said what sold the referendum was we said exactly what we would use [the money] for,” explained Jane Gallucci, Pinellas County school board member.

Gathering information

The district decided funds from a proposed property tax increase would go eighty percent toward improving the salaries of individuals paid on the teacher salary scale (teachers, guidance counselors, etc.) and 20 percent toward art, reading, and music programs; textbooks; and technology, Galluci said.

In conjunction with the local union, the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, the school board commissioned a poll in the spring of 2003 to determine how an operating referendum would be received in the district. The poll indicated strong mid-range support for a smaller increase (50 cents per $1000 of assessed property value) but less support for a higher increase ($1 per $1000 of assessed property value), according to Gallucci. Polling suggested that support for the referendum increased as citizens learned more about exactly how the money would be spent.

The district also began gathering information from other Florida districts that had successfully passed referendums.

Initially, the district was going to put the referendum on the ballot in the spring of 2005. However, in March 2004, the teacher’s union indicated that it was becoming increasingly difficult to compete with Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and other states, Gallucci says, and Florida graduates were seeking teaching jobs elsewhere. Meanwhile, the local realtors’ association conducted a poll that also indicated the community was favorable to passage of the referendum. Their data indicated that the best time to put the referendum on the ballot would be during the general election. The referendum was added to the school board’s agenda as an emergency item, and the board voted to add the referendum to the ballot of the November 2004 election.

Talking to the community

Beginning in April 2004, six of the seven school board members (one opposed the referendum) worked diligently to ensure passage of the referendum. The initiative was large in scale. The district put together an informational video, and a grassroots network of parents spoke to community groups. The purpose was to educate Pinellas County voters about the specifics of the district’s funding sources, Gallucci said.

Advocates of the referendum showed the community how much money the district received from state and federal funds, how that money was spent, and why it wasn’t enough to cover the measures on the referendum. The teachers union also campaigned actively for the referendum, according to Michelle Dennard, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

The association communicated to its workforce about taking a part in getting the referendum passed, set up informational pickets in high-traffic areas, and made connections with community-based groups. It also set up question and answer sessions about the referendum throughout the community. “We talked about why the referendum was important, school district finances and programs we wanted to see continued that were in jeopardy. …We talked to as many people as we could,” she explained.

Pinellas County is a traditionally conservative county comprised largely of senior citizens. To engage the senior community, the district sold the referendum as a quality of life issue, Gallucci said. Advocates of the referendum explained that without a viable school district, Pinellas County wouldn’t see improved economic development.

Initially, Gallucci said, the board did not vote to support the referendum. However, since one of the school board members was actively campaigning against the referendum, the board officially voted its support one month before the election. This prevented the opposing board member from further campaigning against the referendum.

The referendum passed with sixty-three percent of the vote. Gallucci said she wasn’t surprised by the win, but she was shocked by the large margin of victory. “I knew the citizens believed in the school district, but I thought it would be an uphill battle,” she explains, citing the record turnout and the profile of county voters.

“We showed the public what the teacher salary schedule would look like,” Gallucci said. The school board also promised that administration of all monies would be supervised by an oversight committee comprised of community leaders.

Advice for other districts

Now that the referendum has passed, the district is in the early stages of implementation. They appointed the oversight committee which will demonstrate to the community the judicious and effective use of its tax dollars, Gallucci said. When the district begins to receive tax dollars in July 2005 the oversight committee will know how every penny is distributed. She added that based on the experiences of other school districts, oversight committees generally improve the district’s relationship with businesses and citizens and become “cheerleaders” for the school district within the community. This could be particularly important in four years, when the referendum expires.

Overall, the referendum experience was positive, Gallucci said. Her advice to other districts considering similar measures: “If you believe in your school system and you believe that your community believes in your school system, go for it! Tell the absolute truth about how you’re funded and what your needs are. Believe in your community and the needs of your students.”

Dennard seconded Gallucci’s advice about the importance of honesty. In the case of Pinellas County this communication was particularly important because the district is capital rich, in terms of buildings. It was important to explain the difference between capital outlays and operating expenses and the different “pools” of money available to Florida school districts, Dennard said. 

For example, citizens saw new school construction but weren’t necessarily aware that budget cuts had already caused the district to eliminate seven hundred positions (including direct instruction assistants) and that key programs were in jeopardy. In a referendum campaign, “the financial picture should be communicated clearly, then you need to delineate where the monies will go,” she says, adding that it is important to keep the communication structure in place even after election day.

Lessons learned
  • Clearly communicate the district’s financial picture.
  •  Explain where the district's money comes from, how it is spent, and where the shortfalls occur.
  •  Specify how additional dollars raised through a tax increase will be spent.
  • Involve parents, teachers, and staff in outreach to the community.
  • Invite the community’s continued involvement after the measure is passed.

 


Posted: February 11, 2005

©2005 Center for Public Education

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