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Sarasota Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 6 months ago

Millions in Sarasota school funding on March ballot

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Continuation of voter-approved 1-mill tax rate would deliver an estimated $71.6 million.
by: Eric Garwood Managing Editor

The last time voters considered Sarasota County Schools' supplemental 1-mill property tax, they passed the measure with its highest approval rate ever — nearly 80%.

This year, as the funding source comes up again for voter approval on March 8, school officials aren't taking anything for granted. On the line are salaries of about 600 teachers paid for by the estimated $71.6 million accounted for by the 1 mill, along with guidance counselors and other staffers who interact with students and the district's ability to deliver summer learning programs. It's also how the school district swings its 30 extra instructional minutes a day — all of which help the maintain a consistent A rating from the state. 

"Everything we can do to make sure our kids are educated to the full extent and being successful and having those opportunities," Superintendent Brennan Asplen said. "So I think it's real important. I think people recognize that, too."

The decision to continue a supplemental 1-mill property tax for schools comes up once every four years in Sarasota.

Since 2002, voters have approved the tax rate in order to fund things such as the extra instructional time, which makes possible a seven-period day at the high school level, pre-K programs, art and music teacher positions and additional school staff. School leaders point out the additional instructional hours, if applied to a student who begins in kindergarten and graduates high school will have experienced the equivalent of an extra year of schooling, as a result. 

1 mill of tax on a property valued at $500,000 would equate to $500. Between the state-mandated "required-local effort" millage rate and the district-set base rate plus the voter-approved rate, property owners pay 6.7 mills (equal to about $3,350 on that $500,000 property).

The district has over the last few months been working to get out the word of the upcoming election among civic groups and area charitable foundations. The millage rate renewal has traditionally enjoyed broad support in Sarasota County, but every election cycle is different.

"You don't ever rest on your laurels," said communications director Craig Maniglia. "That's why we do this. I can't tell you that outcome would be the same if we did nothing. But would you wake up Monday morning and go 'Boy, we should have.' At least we know we did anything we possibly could have."

A similar 1-mill measure passed in November in Manatee County with nearly 70% of the vote, even after opponents criticized the district for relying on the voter-approved millage to fund a segment of teacher salaries. This year, the 1-mill election is paired with the county's request to return to at-large voting for County Commission from a recently installed single-member district system. 

To lose the millions in funding would mean restructuring of programs and potential layoffs, Asplen said. 

School officials emphasize this is not a tax increase. The millage rate has been in place since 2002, and if it's approved, the revenue would apply to fiscal years beginning in 2022 through 2026.

While the voter-approved 1 mill is devoted to salaries, the school district is also working on a list of capital projects funded by its 25% share of the countywide 1 penny surtax. While cities and towns work through their priorities for that levy, Maniglia said the school district has been setting that discussion aside until the voter-decided millage election is concluded. 

"They've kind of put it on hold until we get through March 8," he said.

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