Under fire, Miami schools chief revises ballot language to hike taxes for teacher pay

At its next meeting on July 18, the Miami-Dade School Board will consider approval of ballot language for a referendum to raise property taxes in order to increase teacher pay and fund additional school safety personnel.
At its next meeting on July 18, the Miami-Dade School Board will consider approval of ballot language for a referendum to raise property taxes in order to increase teacher pay and fund additional school safety personnel. Miami Herald file photo

Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has eliminated vague ballot language that his office added to a proposed property tax referendum after School Board members complained that they never discussed funding a third initiative.

With all but one board member present, the board unanimously voted June 27 to authorize district staff to craft ballot language for the November general election ballot that would raise property taxes for four years. They agreed to use the funds raised solely to compensate teachers, their top priority, and to fund school safety personnel and said they’d consider approval of the language at their July 18 meeting

But when the agenda for their July meeting was posted online Wednesday, some school board members were taken aback at language added that would use referendum funds for “innovative programs.”

“The whole conversation has been to give better salaries for teachers who were so deserving and increase safety and security for students,” said chairwoman Perla Tabares-Hantman. “I think they did that thinking they could get away with that, but it didn’t work. I think this was not the right thing to do.”

Carvalho’s office announced its decision to revise the item to media and board members Thursday night after the Miami Herald published a story online earlier in the day quoting five board members who said they never discussed using the referendum to raise money for “innovative programs.” His office said the decision was based on board member feedback.

Carvalho told the Miami Herald he added that language as a placeholder for priorities previously expressed by the board, such as art, music, additional school counselors and bilingual programs.

“The board meeting that authorized me bringing the board language did not authorize the language itself,” said Carvalho, who said he had the board’s current and past priorities in mind. “In light of additional conversation with the board, it is clear ... that the board is definitely interested in two specific issues. They’re not interested in this point as addressing previously declared priorities.”

Those details, however, were not clearly explained in the item containing the ballot language that was posted online. The revised board item will be posted Friday morning, according to spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, and will also include language on the referendum that would form an oversight committee, which board members supported but was left out of the original item.

Carvalho’s revisions were met with mixed reaction.

Board member Steve Gallon, who said his phone had been ringing off the hook with “incensed” callers, called the ambiguous language of “innovation programs” a black hole.

“I can’t express appreciation to anyone for doing something that they should’ve done in the beginning, and that is, adhere to the intent and spirit of the board as expressed in the prior board meeting,” he said. “The board was very clear.”

“I really think that the item that was published tried to give us maximum flexibility, but in light of the conversation that occurred in the workshop, we were very specific,” said board member Lubby Navarro. “Those are the areas I feel are our priority right now.”

Board members were pleased with the added language of the oversight committee, a common practice among other school districts that have had ballot referendums to raise more for school initiatives.

“Accountability and transparency are of utmost importance,” said board member Mari Tere Rojas.

“The more focused we are, the more specific and the inclusion of details, I think that’s the right thing for our voters to earn their trust,” said vice chairman Martin Karp. “But also as a board member, I would not go out to the community and have these conversations if I couldn’t tell people what they could expect.”

The board will meet Wednesday to vote on whether to approve language that would increase property taxes by 75 cents per thousand dollars in taxable value, which would total about $232 million, or $142 more for the typical homeowner. How the funds will be allocated will be discussed by the board at the meeting.

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

Alberto Carvalho speaks to the Miami-Dade School Board about his decision to stay as superintendent.

Related stories from Miami Herald