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Will S. Fla. Voters OK Property Tax Hikes?

In light of the Parkland tragedy, South Fla. voters will consider voluntarily higher property taxes in order to boost school safety and pay teachers more.

MIAMI – South Florida voters will be asked to approve a property tax this year to avoid major cuts in teacher pay and safety initiatives enacted since the Parkland tragedy.

In Broward County, this could mean an average tax increase of $150 for the average homeowner if voters say yes in the August primary. Palm Beach County voters will be asked during the November general election to continue an existing tax. Details for Miami-Dade weren’t available.

The tax would be a renewal or expansion of a property tax approved in 2018, during a time of heightened concern over school safety and teacher retention.

School districts wanted money to put more police officers, security guards and mental health counselors in schools after a troubled former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

That same year, teacher discontent nationwide over pay and safety was growing, with teachers in some states going on strike.

So all three South Florida counties, as well as many other districts, asked voters to approve referendums to raise taxes. The money paid for teacher supplements and security personnel in all three counties, and mental health counselors in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Palm Beach County also uses a portion of its tax to pay for art and music teacher positions.

Under state law, the money only lasts for four years, unless voters approve the tax again in a new referendum.

“It’s important for the community to know if the referendum were to go away, all these individual [allocations] would go away, teacher supplements, safety and security and mental health,” said John Sullivan, legislative liaison for Broward schools.

The school district has been widely criticized for how it executed a 2014 referendum for school renovations. But Sullivan said the district has spent the 2018 money as promised.

“The community can see the impact of their investment,” Sullivan said. “The security presence in schools has been greatly enhanced.”

Broward voters agreed four years ago to levy $50 on every $100,000 worth of assessed property, but the School Board now wants to raise that to $100. That would be an increase from $150 to $300 for the owner of a $325,000 home.

If voters fail to pass the tax increase, that same homeowner would pay $150 less.

Broward school officials say a major reason a higher tax is needed is because of a law passed by the Legislature in 2019 that requires school districts to share referendum dollars with charter schools. About 20% of Broward students attend charter schools, and Broward would have to share $23 million if it asked voters for the same tax as last time.

Palm Beach County is actually not affected by this law. Charter schools sued that school district to receive a share of its 2018 referendum dollars and won.

“We are looking to renew the referendum. We aren’t seeking an increase,” Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke said. “Charter schools represent 11% of our enrollment, and we’ve already been forced to start sharing that money. We’ve been forced to work them into our budget.”

He said the cuts were offset some by rising property values.

Palm Beach County’s tax of $100 per $100,000 of assessed property is twice the $50 that Broward levies. Miami-Dade homeowners pay $75.

The higher tax has enabled the other districts to offer larger supplements.

Palm Beach County pays veteran teachers’ supplements of up to $10,000 and Miami-Dade $18,5000. Broward’s supplements were generally $8,000 or less with a few high-paid teachers getting more.

“We need to be competitive with our surrounding districts and compensate our teachers appropriately,” School Board member Lori Alhadeff said.

The money also pays for bonuses for teacher aides, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Several School Board members say they would like to expand that to other employees who work at schools, including custodians, clerical and administrators, although no decisions have been made yet.

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said the money from the 2018 referendum has helped, “but it still needs to be better and more competitive.”

But the bonuses have caused some friction among teachers. The union negotiated the allocations, and while some veteran teachers got supplements of $8,000 or more, teachers hired in the last decade were given less than $2,000.

Waldo Jude Mirambeau, a teacher at McArthur High in Hollywood, said he only receives $71 a paycheck, while some higher-paid teachers are getting closer to $500, which he finds disheartening. He said he unsuccessfully tried to persuade the union and School Board to give more money to teachers with less seniority, who are struggling with the rising cost of living in South Florida.

Leaders from Broward Teachers Union, which negotiated the supplements, have argued many veteran teachers were promised raises years ago that they never got when the district eliminated guaranteed pay raises for experience.

Union leaders also say newer teachers, some who had been making less than $44,000, were all raised to a minimum salary of $47,500 due to a recent state law.

Still, Mirambeau said he’s reluctant to approve this year’s referendum.

“I’m a homeowner. I have to pay those taxes,” he said. “I’m getting $72 a paycheck, which is barely covering my union dues. I’d rather my taxes not go up.”

School Board members say they hope with an increased tax, all teachers will get a significant boost to their salaries.

“If this were not to pass, it’s a lot of money that’s going to our teachers that would greatly impact them,” School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson said.

© 2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.