In 2008 – 2012 my school taxes went down. Why? Because my property values crashed along with everyone else. Unlike cities and counties who can raise their millage rates when values fall to achieve “rollback”, that holy grail of tax rates, school districts must simply cut their expenses. You see, school districts have their tax rate set by the legislature. The rest of the tax that the school board is able to levy is already set at the maximum. And since 65 of 67 school districts levy the maximum millage allowed by law school districts have no place to go when property values fall.
After presenting the school funding formula to many groups it is my conclusion that most of the public does not understand this. And it is likely that the editorial writer in last Sunday’s Key West Citizen does not understand this.
Not only are school districts unable to raise millage rates to keep up with falling values like the cities and counties can, the constitution of the state of Florida dictates the number of employees we must have! That’s correct, the class size amendment in the State Constitution mandates the number of teacher hires for school districts.
We have 534 teachers for 7000 kids. This does not count our 1100 charter school students, as charter schools are not required to conform to the constitution for whatever reason. That ratio for us is 13.1 students per teacher. Why such a low number? Because in order to comply with the class size amendment with 16 small inefficient schools spread across 105 miles we must hire 534 teachers. While some classes are larger we are in compliance with the letter of the law.
Back to that five-year period my taxes went down. They did not go down for the city and county taxpayer. Those governments simply raised the millage, called it “rollback” and brought in the same amount of money as the year before. Since the school district’s tax millage is set by the legislature and the rest is maxed out the school board has no option to raise taxes to achieve “rollback” so we must cut. And cut we did. The only reason the cuts were not worse was because we continued to dip into our reserves hoping values would improve. Now they finally have. But as a consequence of cutting for five years in a row we have harmed our district. It has benefited taxpayers including myself but it has harmed students.
I added up my personal tax savings from the value drop in my two local properties and the resulting cutting of our schools over 2008-2012. One property is my homestead, the other a rental non-homesteaded property. The total of tax savings over the five-year period came to over $236 dollars. So while my other taxes continued at “rollback” my school taxes went down for those years 2008-2012. The school districts cut pay, reduced services to students and cut support services which are people. 80% of our budget is people. The rest is utilities and supplies. You cannot cut those remaining budget items enough to make a significant difference in the tax burden. The School Board had to cut over 12 million dollars in the last three years alone to balance the budget and live within our means while our means were drastically cut by dropping property values.
So from 2008-2012, I saved over $236 and now the district is getting $35 back from me this year. So I’m ahead $201. The school district will never recover the total loss as the other taxing authorizes were able to. We have to start with a new base and work forward. At the same time we must try to set competitive salaries to recruit and retain good teachers as well as good support staff. Our current support staff ratios are very low due to all of the cutting these past five years. We were forced to become very efficient. Our administration ratio is 1% of total expenditures. Our principals and assistant principals account for less than 5% of the budget. We no longer have assistant principals at our elementary schools. Maintenance of facilities is 2.6% of the budget. Utilities are 7.5%.
If the Sunday editorial writer(s) says we must sharpen our pencil after we have been doing this painful exercise over the last few years, he or she must believe that our salaries are too high or that we have too many people. When you make cuts in a system where 80% of your expenditures are people it becomes obvious how to lower the taxes. You either hire less people which is illegal according to the class size amendment contained in the Florida Constitution or you pay those people less.
Our students and employees have suffered enough. They have shared the pain with the rest of the communities nationwide. We need to bolster our health fund and worker’s comp fund to fix audit findings, we need to build our fund balance, we have been raiding that rainy day fund to soften the blow to our system. It is time to pay that back. Overall school taxes have gone down in the five-year time period 2008-2012. This year the school board is asking for a little back so we can propose a responsible balanced budget for the 2013-14 school year.