Advocates Push for School Tax Renewal

Todays News

Photo courtesy Citizens for Better Schools: Jane Goodwin campaigns to renew the schools sales tax.

Sarasota County voters for nearly 20 years have maintained a property tax on themselves to help fund local schools. On March 8, a special election will determine if that levy remains.

The legislation seems on the road to passage. At stake is more than $71 million, money that would be used to keep an extra 30 minutes in the school day, fund a Summer Learning Institute and expand science, technology, engineering and math resources. 

School Board Member Jane Goodwin feels confident the measure will once again pass. “We need the money and it goes to a good effort,” she said. Also, there’s no organized opposition to date, and the election is barely more than two weeks out now. More than 40,000 voters already cast ballots. 

Criticism has come up at school board meetings. Parent Melissa Bakandi, while criticizing a contract selection at a Feb. 15 meeting, suggested the board isn’t fiscally responsible. “This School Board wants the taxpayers of Sarasota County to pass the tax referendum,” she said. “But why should we? The money does not filter down to the parents or the teachers. Where does your hard-earned tax money go? To exploding, unprecedented and unsustainable legal fees.”

There’s been general criticism of schools in the last year, and of the Sarasota school district in general, largely over opposition to mask mandates. The majority of support for the tax referendum has gone up every four years when it came up for renewal since its initial passage in 2002 — it passed with 78.63% support in 2018. Still, School Board Member Shirley Brown wonders if the same will happen this year.

“It might come down this time because of the backlash to school boards,” Brown said, “but at the same time I know we’ve got people who support the public schools. More people are paying attention, and yes, we have detractors. But while people say we’re waking a sleeping giant, it’s also woken up advocates for public education who want to stand up and say we can help.”

The referendum this year comes up as the Governor seeks to financially punish districts who implemented mask mandates after he issued an executive order forbidding them. Sarasota had a requirement in place this school year for three weeks.

Regardless, even groups who criticize the school district support continuing the tax. Christine Robinson, executive director of The Argus Foundation, in an SRQ Daily column Saturday criticized limits on public input at School Board meetings but still wrote of the importance of continuing the tax. “In light of COVID-19 and the amount that our kids have suffered in their education over the past two years, we need to make sure we are properly funding education and helping students achieve now more than ever,” she wrote.

Goodwin said a poll done by the Citizens for Better Schools showed a majority of parents supported the mask mandates; she did not share full results.

Both major parties endorse the tax. The Republican Party of Sarasota, while highly critical of the Democrat-majority board, backs the levy. “This is a specific, local tax,” said acting Republican Party of Sarasota Chairman Jack Brill. “It’s a millage specifically for teachers, school counselors and schools. It has an independent oversight board. It has to be renewed every four years. We feel that the education of our children is paramount to the success of Sarasota County.”

Goodwin suspects the impact of another county-wide referendum, on electing county commissioners countywide instead of single-member elections, will impact turnout and who votes. But the broad spectrum of support for the tax has her suspecting the measure passes, regardless of the margin.

Photo courtesy Citizens for Better Schools: Jane Goodwin campaigns to renew the schools sales tax.

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