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East County Wednesday, Jun. 2, 2021 4 months ago

Manatee County Commissioners irked by proposed school property tax referendum

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School Board of Manatee County and Manatee County Commissioners disagree on election date for 1-mill property tax vote.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

The School Board of Manatee County is trying to move forward with getting the 1-mill property tax referendum on the ballot during a Nov. 2 special election, but the board is getting resistance from the Manatee County Commission. 

The 1-mill property tax was last approved with 51% of the vote in March 2018 during a special election. The money from the millage is used to increase student instruction time by 30 minutes per day, increase pay for district employees and expand career and technical education and STEM programs. The millage also provides funding for charter schools. 

In hope of addressing commissioners’ concerns regarding a special election, the School Board of Manatee County is amending its resolution for the continuation of the millage to expire in three years instead of four years. This would cause future votes on the millage to take place during presidential elections starting in 2024. 

If the voters choose to continue the millage, it would start July 1, 2022 and expire June 30, 2025. The current millage expires June 30, 2022.

The school board is required to submit a resolution to the county commissioners to “direct the county commissioners to call an election,” according to state statute.

“What we’ve historically advised is that because of that mandatory language it is regarded as a ministerial duty of the board [of commissioners] that should not in any way be perceived as an endorsement of the proposed millage increase,” said William Clague, the commissioner’s attorney, during a May 11 commissioner meeting.

Commissioner George Kruse was not supportive of holding a special election and asked the commissioners to consider the vote for the millage be conducted during the primary election on Aug. 16, 2022.

“I hate special elections,” Kruse said. “Special elections are a waste of taxpayer money, they’re a waste of volunteers’ time. Special elections are pretty much done to avoid people voting. … I’m not trying to keep them from having the vote; I’m trying to keep them from having the vote in a special election.”

Savannah Adams and Victoria Santaella, students at R. Dan Nolan Middle School, use an anatomage table to label the different parts of the heart. The school was able to purchase an anatomage table using the millage. Courtesy photo.

Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge agreed with Kruse and said a special election is “essentially voter suppression.”

“I think the idea is only folks who have a self interest are going to actually show up for the vote on that day,” he said. “I think that’s exactly what the school board is trying to do, and they’re trying to stay in that cycle of a special election. …. I want to hear from as many constituents as possible. I would like to have it on a general election ballot to be honest. I’m willing to cooperate here and find a happy medium and compromise.”

Kruse said another reason to not have a special election is the $400,000 cost associated with having the election. 

State statute says any costs associated with the election must be paid by the school district.

Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, said the district cannot use taxpayer money to pay for the election but rather raise the money through other means such as public donations or using fees from after school care.

The commissioners unanimously decided May 11 to send Charlie Kennedy, the chair of the School Board of Manatee County, a letter requesting the millage vote be moved to the Aug. 16, 2022 primary election and explain why the board wanted the Nov. 2 special election.

Saunders said having the vote on the primary election would be too late because the district’s millage expires in June 2022, and the district’s Trim Notice, or Truth in Millage, must be approved in July 2022. 

The district’s Trim Notice informs taxpayers the amount they owe to the district for the 1-mill property tax.

“Once [a Trim Notice] is done, it’s set for the whole year, and we cannot change it,” Saunders said. 

Logan Scheuerman, Jack Carlson and Magnus Tilton, who are fifth graders at Robert E. Willis Elementary School, are part of the Gray Geckos VEX team. The millage helps support programs like the VEX program. Courtesy photo.

Commissioners questioned why the district didn’t have the millage on the ballot in the 2020 general election.

Saunders said the time the district would have been preparing the referendum during the spring of last year was spent trying to get students through the end of the school year with e-learning as a result of the pandemic. 

Last summer, the district was developing its plan to reopen schools safely in August rather than campaigning for approval of the millage.

“You have to prepare for an election well in advance,” Saunders said. “This being our first renewal, we had not gone through this process prior. That was the furthest thing from our mind knowing that we had until June 2022. … Our focus in the spring was just about how to open up school safely for all of us.”

Saunders said the school board decided to have the special election in November in hopes future millage votes would be put on a general election cycle.

The commissioners will vote whether to send the resolution to the supervisor of elections during its June 8 meeting. The resolution must be sent to the supervisor of elections in June in order to have an election in November. 

If the two boards cannot agree on an election date, Clague said the school board could take the commissioners to court and through a writ of mandamus, a judge would issue a court order compelling the commissioners to comply with the school board’s request.

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