The different directions of school tax rates in Sarasota and Manatee counties demonstrate the dysfunction that has long been a part of school funding.
This problem has nothing to do with how much money is spent or even who benefits. The dysfunction is that the Legislature sets the property tax rate for schools, but the 67 local school boards decide how most of the money is spent.
This creates a disconnect by de-linking accountability to the taxpayer and generates bizarre rituals in a funding formula that is more complex than quantum theory.
It also explains why school tax bills will fall next year in Sarasota County as the tax rate declines about 3%, while Manatee County school tax bills will remain the same as the tax rate actually increases 5%.
Neither of those decisions was made by the Sarasota or Manatee school boards. They were made by legislators in Tallahassee last April, along with 65 other tax rates in the state.
It’s a system in which taxpayers are left clueless about whom to hold responsible. School boards blame Tallahassee for cutting money and mandating certain programs, while legislators say school districts are getting plenty of money and need to do a better job living within their means.
The reason Tallahassee sets school-tax rates is in pursuit of a Utopian idea of providing equal education to every student in the state — and fear of lawsuits over unequal education if each school district is allowed to set its own. In the opening overview to school-district funding in this year’s statistical report, the Florida Department of Education wrote:
“In 1973 the Florida Legislature enacted the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) and established the state policy on equalized funding to guarantee to each student in the Florida public education system the availability of programs and services appropriate to his or her educational needs that are substantially equal to those available to any similar student notwithstanding geographic differences and varying local economic factors.”
The FEFP takes a head-spinning number of inputs, from race and ethnicity, to special needs to cost of living in a district, to students who speak other languages, to poverty, to rural or urban — and so much more — and plugs them in. The formula then spits out tax rates for each school district in an attempt to make funding as equal as possible considering it costs more to do the same thing in some counties.
In this way, the state takes all the money and then spreads it around, so wealthier school districts subsidize poorer districts. But part of the funding law keeps districts from contributing more than 90% of the cost of running their district. The state average is 54%. Sarasota went over that 90% cap and so its tax rate had to be reduced 3% — something the school district would never have chosen to do.
And because of the decline in property values, Manatee’s tax rate was increased — which in Tallahassee educrat-funding-speak is called a “rollback.”
The solution is simple and grounded in reality and accountability. Get the state of Florida out of the business of setting local school-tax millage rates and let each school board set the rate and spend the money.
Only then will we know exactly whom to hold accountable for getting our money’s worth and eliminate the blame game.
If the Legislature wants to give more money to poor districts, let it do it from the state lottery, that piggybank that supposedly was designated for education.
Unfortunately, there is a degree to which both sides benefit politically by being able to blame the other. They do not have to take responsibility, and that is sweet music in a politician’s ears.
Rod Thomson can be reached at [email protected].