School referendum money supplements cost of education

Reagan Miller, chair of the Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee, presents a report to the school board Jan. 14 on expenditures made during the 2018-2019 from money collected from a half mill in ad valorem tax, which has been approved by voters since 2004. Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services, stands behind her.

LARGO — In 2004, Pinellas County voters said yes to paying an extra half mill in ad valorem taxes to help boost teachers’ salaries, enhance reading programs and supplement funding for music and art classes, as well as buy instructional materials and meet technology needs.

Voters approved the extra taxation again in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

The money is spent according to school board policy that targets specific areas. The Independent Citizens Referendum Oversight Committee, which Superintendent Michael Grego says is the “strength” of the program, monitors the spending. It meets quarterly to review reports to make sure the money is being used in a way that best benefits the schools and the programs specified in the referendum.

The seven-member committee includes Chair Reagan Miller, Pinellas County Council of PTAs; Keisha Bell, Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students; Martha Folwell, League of Women Voters; Melissa Honeycutt, Pinellas Realtor Organization; Denise Hurd, Pinellas County SAC Association; Mitch Lee, Pinellas Education Foundation; and Mike Meidel, Pinellas County Economic Development Council.

Miller presented a report to the school board Jan. 14 on expenditures made during the 2018-2019 school year. She said it was the responsibility of the ICROC to ensure the money was spent according to the “intent of the voters in a responsible and equitable manner.”

She said $33.2 million had been used to recruit and retain high quality teachers with $4,188 of every teacher’s salary funded by referendum dollars, which is $184 more than in 2017-2018. In addition, nearly $9 million was allocated to the arts, reading and technology, she said.

She then provided highlights of different ways the money was used, which is specified in a 33-page report.

In the visual arts department, funding paid for art supplies, materials, furniture, equipment, technology, field trips, summer camps, as well as training and support for teachers. Equipment included printers, laptops, iPads, cameras and more. Six digital arts and three traditional arts camps were held in June attended by 283 students in grades four-eight.

The traveling art mobile visited 46 elementary schools and 203 field trips to local art museums and galleries were provided for 13,607 students.

In the performing arts department, 73 elementary music classrooms received funding for instruments, equipment and supplies. Another 85 secondary classrooms received music, supplies, accompanists and other support. Soundboards were purchased for 15 high schools.

Referendum money supported school orchestra programs and guitar classes. Instrument rental fees for students on free or reduced lunch programs were paid for with referendum money with no cost to the student. Money supports choir programs and pays for extra staff for high school band programs. Two schools received new band uniforms last year.

Teacher trips to professional training was paid for as well as a program called Pinellas County Music Cadre, which provides support for new teachers. The performing arts staff developer position is paid for with referendum dollars.

In the academic computing technology department, funding was provided for interactive whiteboards, projectors and software. Miller said the long-term goal is to provide every classroom and teacher with interactive technology.

The money goes to purchase, install and train teachers on the use of the new hardware and software. An advisory team is in place that evaluates needs and recommends purchases from referendum money.

In the area of elementary reading, funds are used to enhance literacy at all 77 elementary schools, as well as exceptional education schools. Teachers at all grade levels receive a variety of reading materials, including literary and informational books.

Money is used to support a range of readers with emphasis on the youngest readers. Schools receive literacy materials based on student enrollment and individual needs. Referendum money provides access to digital books as well as hard copy materials.

Literacy coaches and teachers from each school receive money to attend training and receive on-site professional development opportunities.

In the area of secondary reading, teachers and students receive additional resources to help with meeting Florida Standards requirements. According to the report, literacy coaches, instructional staff developers and teachers work on curriculum writing teams to develop instructional resources.

In addition, referendum funds provide reading materials that would not otherwise be available, such as instructional software, iPads, fiction and non-fiction books, novels and magazines.

All students receive an opportunity to receive books over the summer break and student literacy teams were able to attend the annual Student Literacy Conference, paid for with referendum money.

In addition, teachers received professional development and training to enhance their skills.

“Thanks to the secondary reading referendum funds, Pinellas County students are not only better equipped for success with the Florida Standards and assessments, but also for being on track for graduating college and being career ready,” the report concluded.

Miller said the ICROC would “remain steadfast in providing oversight” on the “invaluable” referendum resources.

School board Chair Carol Cook thanked Miller and the rest of the committee for its work.

“The money is well spent at all the schools,” she said.

The board then voted unanimously to accept the 2018-2019 report.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.