"Story of the school tax - An effort to overcome the 'underfunding' of education" from the SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE



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March 12, 2006

Story of the school tax - An effort to overcome the 'underfunding' of education

How did the Sarasota County School District arrive at the point where it's asking voters to continue a special tax for local schools?

That's a good, fair question to pose in advance of Tuesday's referendum. And it's an opportunity to review history.

In 2002, more than two-thirds of voters endorsed the 1-mill property tax for the first time. (State law dictates most of the taxes local school boards must levy, but provides for an additional local tax -- if a majority of voters approve. The law requires the tax to expire within four years, but allows an extension with voters' endorsement.)

The school district's pursuit of the local-option tax didn't materialize out of thin air. It was strongly recommended in 1998 following a "performance audit" conducted by an independent organization. SchoolMatch, was hired by a consortium of private-sector interests (including the Herald-Tribune) to determine if the school district had provided taxpayers with a solid return on their investment.

In general, SchoolMatch found that the district had performed admirably, when compared with similar districts in the United States. But SchoolMatch also concluded that Florida and local taxpayers were "seriously underfunding" education. The audit team recommended that Sarasota County pursue increased state funding and the additional 1 mill tax.

The SchoolMatch study followed years of efforts by the school district to force the Legislature to fund education at the "adequate" level required by the state constitution. One such effort -- a lawsuit against the state -- was joined by the Manatee and Charlotte school districts.

That litigation and another lawsuit initiated by the Sarasota district nearly succeeded, but the courts reluctantly declined to define "adequate" funding. The Florida Supreme Court did, however, suggest that local districts had a right, if not an obligation, to seek additional resources for education.

In 1998, voters statewide endorsed a constitutional amendment calling for the state to provide adequate funding for a "high- quality" education for all students.

Despite that mandate, Florida's per-pupil funding ranks 42nd in the nation.

There may not be a direct correlation between every dollar spent and student achievement, but analysis and common sense strongly suggest that below-average funding won't produce "high-quality" public schools.

So, it's up to local voters to supplement state funding. We urge them to do so by voting Yes, for the Sarasota County school tax.


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