Little time in Manatee for debate on school tax referendum – News – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

With election just two months away, both sides hope to sway voters

With time running short before Manatee County voters decide if they want to raise their property taxes to fund teacher pay raises, both sides are gearing up for their final arguments.

Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene wants the public to understand why the school district is asking for more money.

“Right now we have over 100 teacher vacancies. Each day that those vacancies aren’t filled, that means there is a substitute, or in some cases we’ve had to split the class up and add students to another teacher’s classrooms,” Greene said. “That is why this is such an important referendum.”

Phil Brown, the former president of the United Way of Manatee County, is leading a political action committee to promote the tax increase.

“We will have broad-based community support for the referendum. It will be based across sectors, people and institutions,” Brown said. “Once we get the word out so people understand what’s at stake, I believe they will support this.”

Brown said he was still formulating a strategy to mobilize voters and that he did not yet know who would serve on the committee. He said the committee was in “no particular hurry.”

The referendum faces opposition from the Republican Party of Manatee County, which voted in December to actively campaign against the tax increase.

Peggy Simone, the Republican Party of Manatee’s state committeewoman, said beating this referendum wouldn’t be easy, considering the district has 7,000 employees – most of whom will receive a pay raise if the referendum passes. Teachers would receive, on average, a $5,842 pay raise.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle to defeat it. Nothing is going to be easy,” Simone said.

District leaders are pushing hard to make sure their people vote.

A presentation delivered to teachers at Manatee High School in December stated: “The one mill is for your paycheck and student learning, and you have the power to make it happen. If our own people do not vote, it will surely fail.”

Union negotiations

Still, that employee support is not guaranteed. Greene is negotiating with Manatee Education Association president Pat Barber to draft a memorandum of understanding as to how revenue would be spent. The School Board passed a resolution in November to allocate 56 percent of the $33 million in new revenue the tax would raise to teachers and paraprofessionals, but it also extended the school day by 30 minutes — something that would require renegotiating the union contract.

Board member Charlie Kennedy said he doubted the union would officially support the referendum without a memorandum in place.

“Getting our teachers and staff out is going to make or break us,” Kennedy said.

Steve Motkowicz, a teacher at Horizons Academy who sits on the MEA Board, said he is not privy to the details of discussions between Barber and Greene, but he has heard teachers want the additional pay without the day being extended. Lengthening the day by 30 minutes builds in more instructional time — a priority of the board’s.

“The big thing with the teachers is they say this isn’t a raise if they have to work an extra half-hour,” Motkowicz said. “The raise is minimal because a large percentage of the money will be for working more.”

Motkowicz said students can receive 30 more minutes of daily instruction without making teachers work more hours, but that requires restructuring how much prep time teachers have daily.

Kennedy said another question the union has is whether the boost comes as a salary increase or as a supplement. Greene wants the money to be distributed as a supplement because it will still be calculated into teachers’ retirement funds, and even if the referendum passes it will only be in effect for four years before it will need to be renewed.

The importance of the union’s endorsement is up for debate.

“They can’t pass this without the union. They already know that,” Motkowicz said. “If the union doesn’t endorse it, they’re not gonna win.”

Manatee High School teacher Don Falls disagrees. “The reality is, I don’t really think the union endorsement would have any impact one way or the other,” Falls said. “The union doesn’t have much influence beyond a fairly narrow group of teachers. I don’t think the plumber who lives down the street from me cares one way or the other cares whether the MEA supports it or not.”

Hopes’ approach

At the core of the debate over the referendum isn’t just a fight over raising taxes — it is also about how well the district would manage the additional money.

Despite administrative missteps in the past year, including the accidental release of more than 7,000 employees’ W2 forms, a payroll glitch that prevented the district from reconciling its bank account for 11 months and a multimillion-dollar software overhaul that has doubled in cost and scope, auditors say the big picture for the district has been positive.

Last week, external auditors from Moore Stephens Lovelace gave a mostly positive report for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Last year’s three-year audit by the state’s auditor general garnered praise from one of the district’s sternest fiscal watchdogs , former audit committee chairman Joe Blitzko.

“Where we were three years ago was close to an F, so we are getting closer to an A,” Blitzko said at the time.

That assessment of steady improvement can run counter to the message board Chairman Scott Hopes has been sending. His approach for promoting the referendum — which he initially opposed — has been to promise voters “a complete transmogrification” in how the district does business.

“I don’t like to lose anything,” Hopes said. “All I can do is lay out my case for how we can be more accountable.”

Part of that effort by Hopes has been recruiting local leaders to serve on a fiscal oversight committee that will monitor both budgeting and how the district spends its new tax revenue.

His rush to get the structure in place with handpicked appointees, however, has miffed fellow board members. Both vice chair Gina Messenger and board member Dave Miner tried to rein him at last Tuesday’s board meeting, telling Hopes that any oversight committee would have to be created by the board, not Hopes independently. None seemed enthused about his choice of developer Pat Neal to chair the committee.

Greene said many of the things Hopes is calling for the district already does. The district ended the year above the required 3 percent reserve fund balance, she said, and it is projected to end this year with more than 4 percent in reserves.

Still, she said, that doesn’t mean the system is not in need of the additional revenue to recruit and retain quality staff, especially with new schools being built.

“We are opening up three new schools by 2019. The misconception is, ‘You all are doing fine, so why do you need to do this?’” Greene said. “Those schools won’t be empty with faculty because everybody wants to go to a new school. It will be our current schools that will be struggling to find teachers, paraprofessionals, food service and custodians.”

The $300,000 cost of the special election has become a sticking point for referendum opponents. Hopes and board member John Colon have both said they want a November election. Neal, a major political donor who is supporting the district’s efforts to get more revenue, agrees with them.

The question before board meetings in recent months has been whether Messenger, Kennedy or Miner will break ranks and support a move, especially if the outlook for success in March is dim.

Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett said his office has spent roughly $100,000 on the election already and committed an additional $100,000. Bennett’s office will mail ballots out Feb. 14, and early voting will run from March 10 to March 17, with the official Election Day on March 20.