Education

Is Miami-Dade Schools’ success worth $140 to the average homeowner? Voters to decide.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho speaks at a press conference at Madie Ives K-8 in North Miami Beach as he makes the case to voters to approve a property tax referendum benefitting teachers and schools police.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho speaks at a press conference at Madie Ives K-8 in North Miami Beach as he makes the case to voters to approve a property tax referendum benefitting teachers and schools police. cawright@miamiherald.com

The Miami-Dade County school district is following the same playbook it used the last time it asked voters for a financial boost in 2012.

Back then, the district ran a quick, aggressive campaign to steamroll any opposition to the $1.2 billion general obligation bond to fix crumbling schools and upgrade outdated technology. A political action committee raised nearly $1 million to pass it. The district got a welcome boost when it was awarded the Broad Prize, basically the Nobel Prize for urban school districts.

Back then, as Florida emerged from the recession, 68 percent of Miami-Dade County people who voted said yes to paying more in property taxes to help the school district. Will at least 50 percent vote next month to pay teachers more and ensure there’s a police officer at every school?

A yes vote will mean taxes for the average residential property will increase by about $140 in the first year.

This time around, the district is touting its first A rating and second year of no F-rated schools. A speaking tour is in full swing. It opened another PAC and tapped the same leaders to run the campaign. And with just a month before Election Day, few details have emerged as to how that money will be spent.

That could change Wednesday, when the Miami-Dade School Board is expected to hold a closed-door meeting to discuss how to divvy the $232 million it hopes to raise beginning July 2019.

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Broward County passed a similar referendum in the August primary election, which passed by 63 percent, and Palm Beach County has a referendum on the November ballot.

While the Legislature in March celebrated the passage of a budget that increased funding specifically earmarked for school safety and mental health services, it barely increased base student pay — money to be used with no strings attached that could be used for teacher salaries. Miami-Dade received the third lowest increase among all 67 counties.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho took to Twitter and railed against Tallahassee. Teachers had helped yield record-breaking results for the district, but the state left the district with little to reward them for their efforts by giving raises.

The difference between the general obligation bond of six years ago and this referendum is that this time the tax increase can go to paying teachers more. But there’s a catch. It’s only a four-year deal. To continue beyond that, voters will have to say yes again.

Borrowing money for teacher salaries is not an option and would ruin the district’s credit rating, Carvalho said.

Carvalho has promised at least 80 percent of the new funding will supplement the salaries of classroom teachers, their aides and school-based counselors, social workers and teacher aides, with the rest going to hire enough officers for the school district’s police force. Carvalho has recommended that up to 90 percent should go to teachers, as 10 percent is sufficient to hire enough officers to cover elementary and K-8 schools currently staffed by county and municipal police officers.

The average Miami-Dade teacher, working 12 years in the district, makes $51,819, according to state data. That can be a challenge because Miami ranks as one of the nation’s least affordable metro areas for educators.

United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats expects teachers to be receiving at least a $5,000 supplement. Beyond the immediate benefit of fatter paychecks, the supplement would also count toward calculating retirement benefits for the roughly 19,000 teachers eligible.

If her estimate is close, there will still be millions more to give to teachers. It’s up to the union and the district to negotiate how that is spent. Some teachers could see larger supplements.

“Despite these shortcomings from these state legislators, they [teachers] have stepped up,” Hernandez Mats said at a recent press conference. “But they can’t live in our communities. They can’t make ends meet. They’re Uber drivers. They work at retail stores. And this state is 45th in the nation in how they contribute to the per-pupil funding or spending. And that’s a shame.

“But today, there’s hope. And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to tell the community that they can do right by us.”

Although the referendum language notes that the compensation would be for “high quality” teachers, Carvalho says that’s a reference to the collective job well done and the accomplishments of the district. It’s not his intention, he says, to entertain doling out funds based on performance pay.

The only teachers who would likely not see a raise are those who earned performance ratings of “needs improvement,” “developing” or “unsatisfactory.” According to state data from 2016-17, the latest year available, just 1.4 percent fell into those categories.

Union and district leaders are also looking to compensate mid- to late-career teachers who lost out on major raises as a result of a pay scale change in 2014. A group of teachers at the time sued the district — and the legal battle, which has been going in the district’s favor, is still ongoing in the courts.

“We have been trying to call attention to the fact that they’ve been impoverishing teachers for years,” said Shawn Beightol, a science teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High and one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Is this referendum to prepare for judgment damages?”

Carvalho acknowledged that the referendum funding could “rectify historical mishaps” but balked at the inference that the district’s pursuit of a referendum was reactionary.

“It’s not even a logical comment,” he said. “We’re doing this for everybody.”

In case the referendum is not renewed in the future, Carvalho said, rising property values could help stretch the pool of new money beyond four years.

The PAC for the referendum, Secure Our Future, has contracted with an outside public relations firm and created a website. The teacher union’s PAC, Teachers for Public School Excellence, has created a website and flyers. Neither PAC has had to disclose recent contributions and expenses yet.

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