Ballot issue attracts 20% voter turnout, and draws highest-ever level of approval.
Sarasota voters approved once again a supplemental 1-mill property tax to give extra funding to Sarasota County Schools for the next four years.
The referendum passed with 79% approval — the highest margin in the tax’s history. More than 40,000 people voted early or submitted mail-in ballots, for a total of 62,956 voters.
“It’s very rare that people vote to tax themselves,” Sarasota County Superintendent Todd Bowden said, adding that he was humbled that the county again approved the tax. “That’s how I leave the day — knowing that it’s not just a ‘yes’ from our community but it’s an enthusiastic ‘yes.’”
The 1-mill referendum costs taxpayers $1 for every $1,000 taxable assessed value on a home. For a property with a taxable value of $200,000, that’s $200 extra in property taxes. The tax has been approved via special election every four years since 2002.
“I was a teacher for 40 years, 25 of them here in Florida. I know the importance of it,” said Patricia Ward, who voted March 20 in favor of the tax.
Voter turnout in the election was about 20% — higher than the most recent election in 2014, in which 17% of the registered voters participated. However, it doesn’t rival the vote’s first year, in 2002, when turnout was at 35%.
“The only organized opposition that we had was apathy,” Bowden said. “If apathy is what we had to overcome we were going to be in great shape because what I saw was a group of hardworking volunteers.”
Although turnout improved slightly from 2014, the low input from voters has long been a point of contention for the district.
Each year, the school board has decided the benefits of having an election to focus specifically on the tax is more important than the turnout and the cost to run the election — typically around $400,000.
“This is why we do a special election,” said Board Member Jane Goodwin as the results came in. “We have a conversation with the public one-on-one, without the other things crowding the ballot as would happen with a November election.”
Board Chair Bridget Ziegler, who pushed to move the school tax referendum to the general election, said the district should allow the issue to “stand on its own two feet.”
“We should always keep striving for more voter participation, and just statistically there is proof that in a general election that we will have more voter participation,” Ziegler said.
Using the money
The tax generates about $56 million, which is directed toward staffing and other education costs, and it allows the district to extend school days by 30 minutes each day beyond the state mandated minimums. That adds up to an entire additional year of instructional time for students who have gone through Sarasota County Schools from K-12.
“We truly believe this additional revenue stream is what’s allowed us to be an ‘A’ district every year,” said Sarasota County Schools Chief Financial Officer Misti Corcoran. The referendum’s 1-mill tax represents 13% of the district’s overall budget.
A total of 580 positions are funded through the referendum, officials said. That includes all of the county’s art and music teachers, for just more than $11 million.
This year, district officials don’t anticipate any large changes in how the funding is used, although the district evaluates how the money is used each year. Bowden said the extra instructional time, and art and STEM —science, technology, engineering and math — instruction, will remain the cornerstones of the funding.
“These are our hard-earned tax dollars and I want to make sure we own our part,” Ziegler said.