Broward school district proposes slight tax hike

Education was generally one of the big winners in Florida’s annual legislative session this year, with lawmakers boosting education funding by more than $1 billion statewide, and increasing per-pupil spending by $407.

But part of that extra money for schools will come from property owners, according to a proposed Broward schools budget to be voted on Tuesday evening.

Florida school funding operates under a complex formula that includes both local and state dollars. When the state this year boosted its contribution to the pot, it forced some school districts to raise property taxes so that they can meet their end of the bargain. Broward is one of those counties affected; Miami-Dade is not.

Under Broward’s proposed school district tax rate of 7.48, the owner of a home valued at $200,000, after claiming a homestead exemption, would see the public schools portion of their tax bill rise $4, from $1,305 to $1,309.

“That’s a modest amount,” said Superintendent Robert Runcie, who added that Florida school districts still haven’t gotten back to the pre-recession funding levels. Runcie also said investments in local schools can benefit homeowners through improved property values and overall quality of life.

Runcie and other school district leaders are grappling with a tight budget, even though the district received an additional $93 million in state funding for its general fund this year. However, much of that money is directed to new expenses that state lawmakers also forced upon the district: $47 million for teacher raises, millions of dollars toward dual enrollment and virtual learning programs, and a new required $29 million contribution to the state employee retirement system.

Factor in those new expenses, and the Broward school district is basically breaking even, Runcie said.

Even more importantly, state lawmakers have shown no interest in boosting the amount of property taxes that Broward can levy to fund school construction and renovation projects. Broward’s capital improvements budget — which also funds items such as new computers and band instruments — has been decimated by the Legislature in recent years. State lawmakers dramatically reduced the amount of property taxes that local districts can collect for capital improvements, even as they steadily increased the amount of state dollars that charter schools receive for construction needs.

For Broward, which has a long list of leaky roofs and other urgent repair projects, the reduction was particularly problematic.

“I know that there are needs at every school,” School Board member Robin Bartleman said. “Something has to give.”

During the last legislative session, Broward asked state lawmakers to restore the capital funding it used to get, but Florida’s strongly anti-tax Legislature wasn’t interested. Broward is now exploring whether to ask voters to approve a bond issue or some other locally based solution (such as a sales tax increase).

“At this point, we’re really pursuing all options,” Runcie said.