Vague ballot language confuses Miami-Dade schools’ bid to raise taxes to pay teachers

The Miami-Dade County School Board will meet July 18 to approve referendum language to be placed on the November general election ballot that would raise property taxes for initiatives such as teacher compensation.
The Miami-Dade County School Board will meet July 18 to approve referendum language to be placed on the November general election ballot that would raise property taxes for initiatives such as teacher compensation.

The Miami-Dade County School Board walked away from a workshop and impromptu board meeting in June in unanimous agreement to ask voters if they would raise their property taxes to pay teachers more and fund school-security personnel.

They voted to meet again July 18 to discuss the specific referendum language that would be placed on the November ballot. But the ballot item on next week’s School Board agenda, drafted by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s office and posted online Wednesday, has caught some board members off guard.

Carvalho’s office drafted language that would ask voters to increase property taxes by 75 cents per thousand dollars in taxable value, which would raise $232 million, or $142 this year for the typical homeowner. The money is to attract and retain high-quality teachers, enhance school safety, and for “innovative programs” — the last initiative a surprise to board members, some of whom have asked for clarification from Carvalho.

“The board did not vote on that,” said chairwoman Perla Tabares-Hantman. “Whether the board would be agreeable to this or not, I don’t know. There may be a good explanation, but I don’t really know.”

“As a board member I am totally caught off-guard considering this was never discussed in the context of any direction of the board,” said board member Steve Gallon.

“To the best of my recollection, I do not recall innovative programs being addressed at the workshop,” said board member Mari Tere Rojas.

The item does not give details on which “innovative programs” could benefit, explain how the district arrived at levying 0.75 mills, or how the funds would be distributed to each initiative. There was no mention of an oversight committee that would ensure funds are spent correctly, a recommendation that came from a task force behind the referendum and is a common practice among other school districts that have had ballot referendums to raise more for school initiatives.

Carvalho told the Miami Herald that he added language about innovative programs to “leave a window open” for the board to be able to address needs that have been mentioned, specifically art, music, additional school counselors, and bilingual programs.

“I’m not advocating for it, it’s simply a placeholder based on previous priorities by the board,” he said, adding that he would be open to striking that language and raising money strictly for teacher pay and school safety.

He said the 0.75 mills “strikes a balance” of a sizable salary enhancement for teachers and the impact on taxpayers’ wallets. He said the board will discuss how the funds will be divvied up on Wednesday.

Carvalho suggests that 80-90 percent of the funds raised should be allocated for teacher compensation, with the rest spent for school-security enhancements and those extra programs should the board vote to keep that language. Specifics on which teachers could receive extra pay and how much they could earn will be left to bargaining between the district and the United Teachers of Dade.

“My highest priority is teacher salaries,” he said.

Carvalho said an item detailing how revenue from the referendum would be collected, allocated, and what it will benefit, as well as establishing an oversight committee, will be introduced at an August board meeting. He said a similar process was in place when the district passed a $1.2 billion general-obligation bond in 2012.

Some board members said they would be open to how those funds could be spent on innovative programs but would also like more specific details on what the funds would benefit.

“What I heard in committee was teachers, instructional staff and also school security,” said board member Lubby Navarro, who said she was seeking clarification. “Just from reading it, I said, ‘Oh, they put in this general language and I have to ask what this is.’ ”

“I think it’s very important to know, for example, what is it that when you’re talking about safety and security, what kind of amount we’re talking about,” said vice chair Martin Karp. “If we’re talking about teacher salary, what amount would go toward teacher salary? If we’re talking about innovative programs, what programs are we talking about in what areas?”

He added, “I think if people are not fully aware of what that means, you have greater challenges to gaining that support.”

The Broward County School Board recently voted to add an August referendum that would give 72 percent of the $93 million raised to teacher salaries. Other school boards — like Pinellas County, which has had a referendum initiative since 2004 and was cited as an example in Miami-Dade’s presentation to School Board members — include language about establishing an oversight committee embedded in ballot referendums.

Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.
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