LAND O’LAKES — Voters in Pasco County will have about three months less to decide whether they support a property tax hike to boost the salaries of public school employees.
On May 3, the School Board unanimously decided to hold the referendum in August rather than November, which was originally planned.
Council members did not discuss the decision before their vote. Afterwards, they explained their intention to avoid confusion with a separate ballot initiative in November to expand the Penny for Pasco sales tax. Sales tax revenues are spent on capital projects such as school renovations. It is also shared with county and municipal governments.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t impose this initiative,” said board chair Cynthia Armstrong.
During public comments at the meeting, some residents called this reasoning dishonest. Voters can tell the difference between a sales tax and a property tax, they said.
Parent Erin Pike noted that primary election dates have historically yielded lower turnouts than general elections. She further observed that Democrats have a gubernatorial primary in August, while Republicans do not.
“You’re not going to get the votes of Pasco voters,” Pike said, calling the change a “brazen ploy” to manipulate the outcome. “Let the public tell you what they really want.”
Board Vice Chair Megan Harding disagreed. She suggested that Pasco residents who care about taxes and schools research the issues and get involved.
“People are going to show up to vote,” Harding said.
Parent Chelsi Stahr said she supports teachers and school staff and believes they deserve better pay. But she questioned whether a new tax was needed, saying the district could find money from existing revenues to offer increases.
She and others foreshadowed arguments against the referendum, saying the district spends more per student than larger neighboring districts, given the overall budget.
Harding gave an impassioned speech supporting the need for the referendum, saying many in the community should understand the budget better. She detailed how the money the district receives per student for general operations is lower than neighboring counties, for example, and that state data shows administrative expenses are lower in Pasco than the state average. ‘State over $100 per student.
Beth Brown, the retired administrator leading the referendum campaign, said she had no preference for the timing of the vote.
“It doesn’t really change our message or what we do,” Brown said. “Voting for this referendum will only strengthen the system.”
Voting is now set for August 23. If approved, council could increase the tax rate to as much as $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
In other cases
The school board approved the purchase of new math textbooks, with the caveat that a title must be approved by the state before it can be ordered. The board discussed revising the student dress code to make it less focused on girls’ clothing, and also considered participating in a state-sanctioned program to improve the teaching of African American history.
Board members said they don’t want any confusion with the Penny for Pasco sales tax issue in the November ballot.