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East County Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021 7 months ago

Some Manatee County residents ready to oppose school district's tax referendum

Opposition says taxpayers will enable wasteful school district by approving referendum.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

On Nov. 2, Bradenton’s Garin Hoover plans to go to the ballot box and vote no on the School District of Manatee County’s 1-mill ad valorem property tax referendum.

With a $1 billion budget this year, Hoover said the district has plenty of funds to address teacher salaries and provide a good education to students.

“The district is terribly mismanaged, and they wasted millions of dollars,” Hoover said. “I don’t think taxpayers or voters should enable them with more money. You don’t reward an entity with more money when they’ve foolishly wasted millions of dollars.”

The additional millage provides millions of dollars each year that the district puts toward providing a salary supplement for teachers and other school employees, enhancing STEM and career and technical education, and charter schools. The referendum was passed in 2018 with 51% of the vote.

Hoover and Tara Preserve’s Bill Murdoch used the district’s Enterprise Resource Planning system as an example of fiscal mismanagement. The system was meant to streamline business operations including payroll, human resources and benefits and has cost millions more than originally projected.

In 2016, the Manatee School Board was told the new ERP system would cost less than $10 million. The system launched in July 2018 with countless errors. Since then, the software has cost the district at least $29 million, which includes labor, travel, annual licensing fees, maintenance costs and improvements, and the district adding Manatee Technical College in the software overhaul, all of which were not included in the original rollout of the system.

The district also agreed to pay $525,000 to resolve a lawsuit with Ciber Global LLC, the main company hired to work with district staff and start the ERP system. The company filed a lawsuit in September 2019 demanding $779,000 in unpaid invoices. The lawsuit was resolved in February.

“I’m a little upset with the fact that nobody seems to be accountable for their actions, and they keep coming back asking for more money for programs they want to push forward with,” Murdoch said.

Bradenton’s Jack May, the president of Manatee Patriots, is planning to vote no because the district receives millions more than what was originally projected when the referendum first passed in 2018.

The district projected it would receive $33 million in 2018. Rising property values and more people moving to Manatee County has caused the revenue to balloon to a projected nearly $46 million for this year.

“They have to do a better job,” May said. “They have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, the students and the teachers. I think at some point in time, we probably need to go to a zero-based budget to begin with as opposed to just adding percentages onto existing budget items.”

Hoover said the additional millage is a “money grab” as the district has received nearly $3 million more than the previous year since the referendum was passed in 2018.

“Wouldn’t you think if you’re an organization, ‘Well, how much money do we really need?’ and then base whatever tax on it,” Hoover said. “No, not this district. They say we’re going to go for a mill, and then just recently is when they decided how they were going to spend it. That’s putting the cart before the horse. Assess your needs first.”

Using the tax to supplement teacher salaries is a main reason some people oppose the tax.

Bradenton’s April Culbreath said teachers need to be prioritized and that their salaries shouldn’t be dependent on a funding source like the 1-mill property tax. 

About 51% of the revenue received from the additional millage each year goes toward providing teachers a supplement, which is $5,401 each this year.

Culbreath said voting no will send a message to the school board that the budget needs to be rewritten with teacher salaries as the priority.

“Pay senior employees what they deserve, not just new teachers,” she said. “Cut the excess spending and implement a more conservative operation. Negotiate with their donors better and quit wasting money. Cut some unnecessary admin positions.”

Hoover said the district has had four years to figure out how to put teacher salaries in the operating budget so the referendum wouldn’t be necessary. He suggests the district put all teacher salaries under the operating budget and use the additional millage to fund other programs and needs within the district.

Signs are put up around Manatee County advocating residents to vote against the School District of Manatee County's tax referendum Nov. 2.

“Why would you put your teachers in a precarious position to be dependent upon a tax,” Hoover said. “If you truly value teachers, put their entire compensation in the budget from the get-go, and then if you think you need additional money, put that up to a tax. More importantly, board members and the superintendent and top administrators, why don’t you put part of your salary or all of your salaries subject to the tax.”

Riverdale’s Ed Gocher said the district “should work within its budget like every family in America.”

Hoover also pointed to reports from the Citizens’ Financial Oversight Committee, which was created to ensure the district was using the referendum funds properly and identify and measure relevant outcomes of the referendum, as a reason not to support the referendum.

According to the committee’s past three fiscal year reports, “No definitive conclusions can be drawn at this time regarding the success of the (referendum) in accomplishing its goals.”

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