09/12/2022

UDS-Biz

Growing Your Income

Early Palm Beach County votes favor renewing school district’s special property tax

Voters have approved the four-year continuation of a special property tax that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for Palm Beach County public schools, according to unofficial election results.

On Tuesday, voters answered “Yes” or “No” when asked whether to continue the tax, which was set to expire on June 30.

With 747 out of 794 precincts reporting, about 74% of people voted to continue the tax, a slight increase from the 72% of residents who OK’d the referendum four years ago.

The other 26% — or 126,055 people — voted against its continuation.

CLICK HERE FOR LIVE PALM BEACH COUNTY ELECTION RESULTS

Florida general election 2022: Races and candidates on Palm Beach County voters’ ballots

Endorsement Recap: The Palm Beach Post election recommendations

The tax, which equals $1 for every $1,000 on a home’s assessed value, finances art programs and helps to improve teacher pay, school security and mental health resources.

Between July 2021 and June, district-operated schools and charter schools shared more than $225 million generated by the tax.

Jaireen Ruiz teraches kindergarten at South Olive Elementary School in West Palm Beach. Many teachers got bonuses the last time the school property tax was reapproved.

Charter schools, which are public schools with fewer regulations and more autonomy, have received about 12% of the money since last year, after a lawsuit forced the district to start sharing its revenue.

The charter schools’ share is determined by their student enrollment, and their right to a portion of the added tax revenue is now enshrined in law.

And all public schools, including charter schools, have to align their spending with the referendum approved by voters.

How are Palm Beach County schools spending the added property tax?

Here’s how schools used their money in the last fiscal year:

  • Teacher pay: District-operated schools spent $117 million, and charters spent about $7 million on supplements to boost teacher salaries.

  • Fine arts: District-operated schools spent $58 million and charters spent about $6.7 million to finance elementary art, music and physical education teachers, along with teachers for magnet programs and career academies.

  • Mental health: District-operated schools spent $17.2 million, and charters spent $1.4 million on positions for mental health, including school counselors, psychologists and crisis response teams.

  • Security: District-operated schools spent $16.2 million, and charters spent $2.8 million on school security. That includes new equipment, security for school events and funding for several positions, including school police officers, police aides and school security monitors.

During that time period, more than 30,000 students received mental-health services as a result of the tax, said Heather Frederick, the district’s chief financial officer.

And as of this year, more than 11,700 teachers receive an annual supplement, which ranges from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on how many years of service they have.

Another 700 teachers have less than one year of service and don’t yet qualify for the payment.

Tax revenue adds to multibillion-dollar budget

If a continuation is approved, the tax is expected to generate about $275 million — $240 million for district-operated schools and $35 million for charters — in the current fiscal year, which started July 1.

That money is included in the district’s budget of $4.97 billion in local taxes, state funding and federal grants.

Some critics of the voter-approved tax have pointed to the massive budget, arguing that district leaders need to spend more wisely, not collect more taxes.

In a recent interview, the district’s chief financial officer said the base budget covers only basic education needs in Palm Beach County, the 10th largest school district in the United States.

But to offer competitive teacher salaries, to bolster school safety and to offer fine arts and other specialty programs, she said, the district needs extra support.

How does the Palm Beach County School District budget work?

The district budget is broken into several pots of money that are often restricted by law to certain uses.

The general fund, which includes the voter-approved tax revenue, along with other local money and state funding, totals $2.56 billion.

That money is used to finance daily operations: employee salaries and benefits, building utilities, transportation, textbooks and other everyday needs.

The special revenue fund totals more than $661 million from a host of local, state and federal sources.

That money goes toward school meals, COVID-19 recovery efforts and special programs, such as those for students with disabilities and students from low-income families.

The capital projects fund, worth about $1.4 billion, is used for land purchases, new construction, building renovations and routine maintenance.

That includes more than $100 million a year from the 1-cent sales tax increase that voters approved in 2016. The sales tax can only be used to finance school repairs and renovations, classroom technology and district vehicles such as school buses.

The final pot of money, worth more than $340 million, is used to pay the interest and principal on long-term debt associated with large projects, such as new school construction.

Who is holding the school district accountable?

All of the district’s money is overseen by independent groups.

That includes the budget advisory committee, which makes budget recommendations to the school board, along with the audit committee, which keeps an eye on the district’s accounting methods and financial reports.

It also includes the independent sales surtax oversight committee, which oversees revenue collected from the 1-cent sales tax increase.

And the independent referendum oversight committee would continue to oversee revenue collected from the property tax if voters approve a continuation Tuesday.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Election results: Did voters OK Palm Beach School District property tax?