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Opinion
Longboat Key Thu Feb 18, 2010 5 years ago

MY VIEW: 4 reasons to nix the school tax

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by: Rod Thomson Editor-at-Large

The reasons why Sarasota County taxpayers — and parents — should oppose the renewal of the district’s special one-mill tax extension continue to mount in stunning fashion.

We’ve already gone over the lackluster test scores that have resulted from the past eight years of pumping $400 million into the schools on top of the normal funding amount. Those FCAT scores in the critical later grades show a significant decline in two out of three categories, and a modest increase in one.
Not much of a case for taking another $45 million annually from taxpayers.

But perhaps a stronger case is emerging. A sub-par Sarasota County School Board, at the heavy pushing of its powerful union — by far the largest union in the county — has been flat irresponsible with your money.

The school employee contracts are patterned very much after basic northern manufacturing contracts — heavy on years worked and light as a feather on individual merit — not a formula for having the best overall teachers.

Here are four irresponsible spending reasons why the tax should not be extended.

1. Step increases.
Pay steps, negotiated by the union and approved by the School Board, provide each school employee an automatic raise simply by being employed another year. They have nothing to do with doing a good job, or even an acceptable job. You live and breathe another year on the school payroll, and you get the pay raise. But you also get the increase on the step — in essence, you get a double raise. Every year.

This is where the school district jumps in and proclaims our teachers are all excellent, hard-working, wonderful teachers. Please. This is not Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above average. In any large organization, you will have some great employees, some horrible employees and a lot of average employees. But the union makes it exceedingly difficult to get rid of the bad employees.

2. Longevity bonuses.
These are simply atrocious. Read on and you will see why.

If you work for the district long enough, and you are beyond the 30-step structure — but not beyond the annual pay raises, remember — then you qualify for a Christmas bonus. Again, this is regardless of merit.

This is an enormous windfall for a lot of people.

• Three employees received a Christmas bonus of $14,926 — because they continued to be employed.
• 43 employees received Christmas bonuses topping $10,000 — because they continued to be employed.
• 773 employees received Christmas bonuses topping $5,000 — because they continued to be employed.
• Altogether, 2,493 school employees received Christmas bonuses — because they continued to be employed.

No merit involved. The bad ones and the best ones all get their bonuses, all paid by taxpayers. This does nothing to improve education.

3. Health benefits.
Talk about a place to cut. School employees pay nothing toward their health insurance. Zero. The School District — to be precise, you and me and the rest of Sarasota County taxpayers — pay for the entire health insurance policy.

That is almost unheard of in the private sector. But nothing is too much to give away to school employees when it is on the taxpayer dime and the School Board goes merrily along with it.

4. Most expensive school.
At $120 million, the new Riverview High School is the most expensive high school, per square foot, ever built in Florida. One million pavers on the interior courtyard helped that.

A quick drive past the school on Proctor Road confirms suspicions. Most people gawk the first time. It’s a gorgeous building.

The capital budget, which pays for schools, is not affected by the one-mill tax exemption. But it is relevant because it completes the picture of a School District, led by a School Board, that has absolutely no concept of fiscal restraint, even in the midst of a recession and the 12%-plus unemployment among Sarasota taxpayers.

So who is pushing so hard for this tax extension?

The union. Naturally.

The Sarasota Classified Teachers Association is by far the largest union in the county. Not only has the union negotiated these enormous benefits for its members, it gave $28,500 of the $30,396 the Citizens for Better Schools PAC raised in the last quarter.

So far, it is simply a union PAC trying to buy its members raises from taxpayers. Remember, if the tax does not pass, school employees take a mandatory 6.6% pay cut. It’s in the contract. So nearly 5,000 votes are automatic — employees voting on a referendum to give themselves more tax money.

Let’s remember one other truth: The school employee union is not interested in your children’s education. It is not supposed to be. It is a union representing its members and trying to get the best pay and benefits for the least work — and doing a darn good job of it.

Theoretically, the elected School Board is supposed to be looking out for you. But it is traditionally such a cabal of cheerleaders for the school district — with few exceptions — that the only way to get responsible spending is to force it by denying the extra tax, just as a parent denies a profligate child a credit card.

The picture here becomes all too clear.

Automatic pay raises without any connection to merit, huge longevity Christmas bonuses without any connection to merit; fully paid health benefits; and the most expensive schools in the state add up to a district that is out of control with your money.

And there is only one way to haul it back toward fiscal responsibility.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at rthomson@review.net.

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