School Board approves $1.57 billion budget, lowers millage rate

School Board Vice Chairperson Carol Cook tells teachers upset about their pay that they are being heard during a Sept. 10 meeting. She said requests are being made to the state for more money.

LARGO — Pinellas County School Board unanimously approved millage rates and budgets for fiscal year 2019-2020 during a second and final public hearing on Sept. 10.

Millage rates were the same as those approved during the first public hearing on July 30. The total millage rate approved is 6.584 mills, which is 2.13% less than the current year’s rate of 6.727 mills.

The total includes an operating millage rate of 5.084 mills, which is 2.74% less than the current year. The operating millage rate is comprised of the required local effort of 3.8369 mills, which is 3.59% less than the current rate, and the rate for the discretionary local effort of 0.748 mills, which is the same as FY 2018-2019.

The total rate also includes the local referendum rate of 0.5 mills, which has been approved by the voters every four years since 2008, and the capital outlay millage rate of 1.5 mills, which is the same as the current year.

The total millage rate is 3.81% more than the rolled-back rate of 6.3425 mills, which is the rate needed to generate the same revenue as the current year.

Due to the increase in property values, even with a decrease in the millage rate for next year, the school district estimates it will collect an additional $27.3 million in revenue. However, that same increase in property values will likely mean higher bills for property owners.

Karen Coffey, executive director of budget and resource allocation, said that due to the 7.2% increase in property values, the owner of a home with a taxable value of $175,000 would probably pay about $80 in additional taxes, or $3.15 a day.

The approved budget is nearly $1.57 billion with almost $976 million going to pay for operating expenses. The second highest amount, about $323.5 million is allocated to capital outlay and third highest, $155.5 million will pay for the self-insured health program.

Lou Ann Jourdan, manager of budget, FTE and cost reporting, said about 49% of the district’s budget comes from local sources and 39% from the state with the rest coming from fund balances and transfers.

The district spends the majority of its operating budget, 62%, on salaries and another 20% pays for benefits. Jourdan said at least two-thirds of the budget is spent on direct instruction in the classroom and the remaining 37% goes to support and administrative costs.

The state requires the district to maintain 3% in contingency funds. School board policy calls for 5% to be put aside for the unexpected. The approved budget includes a 7% contingency fund.

Some speakers at the public hearing and the regular meeting that also took place that night thought the excess contingency money could be put to better use — higher pay for teachers and support staff.

Several teachers talked about having to work two extra jobs just to make ends meet. Support staff makes even less they said. Some of them talked about being discouraged, although proud, that their children also wanted to become teachers, in part because of the low pay.

Paula Stephens, a teacher for 22 years, said she loved her job and hoped to continue teaching, but she’s worried about her daughter who also wants to be a teacher. Stephens said when she started her job in 1988, her salary was $27,800. Today she makes $53,800. The starting salary for teachers today is $43,800, only $10,000 more than it was in 1988.

Stephens, as well as other speakers, said there wasn’t a teacher shortage.

“People don’t want to be a teacher” because of the pay, she said.

Other teachers talked about disrespect, micromanaging, lack of support and the emphasis on teaching for tests, not for learning. One implied that the school board didn’t fight for them. Several asked that the surplus money in the contingency fund be used for pay raises.

After the public comments, School Board Vice Chairperson Carol Cook said, “We are listening and we hear you. We are asking legislators for more money. We hear you and we’re doing what we can. This is all the money we have.”

She also said Pinellas wasn’t the only school district with problems due to lack of money. Many districts need money for teachers, support staff and other needs.

“I was an educator for 38 years and my wife is still teaching,” said board member Bill Dudley, adding that he knows it is “really, really tough” to be a teacher these days.

“You need to know we’re on your side, but we can’t give you what we don’t have,” he said, adding that the school board would do “everything humanely possible” to help them.

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