Steve Vernon, president of the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club, knew when he first heard about the 1 Mill 4 Manatee property tax increase to benefit schools that he wasn’t going to support it.
“The school board members and superintendent haven’t been good stewards of their money,” Vernon said. “You don’t give more money when they can’t handle the money they have now.”
A 2013 audit showed the district has mishandled grants, that it wasn’t contributing adequately to its workers’ compensation obligations and it had misused funds earmarked for construction.
Since that time, though, the district has worked to improve its financial standing, which included hiring Superintendent Diana Greene in 2015.
A district flyer to promote the tax increase said the district has improved its credit ratings and has met state-required reserves the past four years.
The same flyer also focuses on the loss of teachers as the main reason to hold a referendum March 20 to ask voters for a 1 mill increase in property taxes for four years.
In a public presentation Feb. 6 at R. Dan Nolan Middle School, Greene said her district is losing teachers to other districts due to lower pay.
“I think it’s totally false,” Vernon said about teachers leaving due to low pay. “I’ve talked to teachers, and it’s support by the administration and the support in the classrooms that are making people leave.”
At a Feb. 12 debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, Realtor Garin Hoover and community activist Linda Schaich confronted Greene and school board member Charlie Kennedy about the existence of exit interviews. Greene said she had not conducted exit interviews, but instead conducted exit surveys. Greene said those surveys are open to the public.
Schaich and Hoover said they had requested exit interviews in January and were told they didn’t exist. They were given the exit survey information after the Feb. 12 debate.
Schaich said 62 of 161 entries on the exit survey listed pay as a reason for leaving the district. She said those numbers weren’t a compelling argument to prove teachers were leaving due to pay.
Of the 62 who left for higher paying jobs, 30 took positions in either the Sarasota or Pinellas school districts where the pay is higher.
Hoover and Vernon said money generated by the property tax increase will hurt the district in the long run because if the 1 mill increase doesn’t pass again in four years, the budget won’t support any salary increases from this vote.
“It’s fiscally irresponsible to give them more money,” Hoover said.
Republic Club member Peggy Martin said she doesn’t believe teachers will see the 56% of the $33 million from the tax hike, as promised.
“The district needs to show people they are good stewards (first),” she said.