Next month, Sarasota will hold a special election to decide whether property owners should pay more taxes to raise funds for county schools. The proposed increase of one mil ($100 per $100,000 of your home's value) means most Sarasotans would pay around $150 a year for the next four years. That works out to about $12.50 per month-"a pizza a month" is how some supporters of the tax are billing it-but still, it's not pocket change, and those with more expensive homes, including many readers of this magazine, will pay more.
Why on earth should we do that?
I asked that question of some of those who have campaigned for the tax, including educators, political consultants and members of the "Citizens for Better Schools." That's a group of business and civic leaders who have spent most of the year studying everything from how well the school district manages its funds (very well, they decided) to whether we have too many administrators. (Actually, with the next-to-the-lowest ratio of administrators to students in the entire state, we may have too few, the committee concluded). I armed myself with good old-fashioned journalistic skepticism, demanded facts and figures and even asked a badgering question or two. And the more they told me, the more I started nodding my head "yes." Pretty soon I was asking how I could help them get the word out. So, from the notebook of this now not-so-objective reporter, here's why our schools need the money.
Florida schools are a total embarrassment. Yes, we live in a state with booming growth, scads of rich retirees, incomparable natural assets and some of the ritziest resorts on the planet. But when it comes to funding public schools, Florida is "cheap and proud of it," as the St. Petersburg Times recently put it. We rank 49th out of all 50 states in our per-capita spending per student; 45th in the percentage of state income spent on public schools; 43rd in teacher/pupil ratios. Legislators like to talk about how much we spend on education; and we do spend more on that than anything else-all states do-but it's precious little, nonetheless. And we get just what we pay for. We have somewhere between the 44th and 49th poorest high school graduation rate in the country; we're 43rd in the percentage of kids who go on to college; and our students score poorly on standardized tests. To put Florida's commitment to education in another way: Alabama and Mississippi spend more on each student than we do.
Why and how that happened is another article-but the state's wildly diverse population, our many snowbirds and transients, and politicians too short-sighted or just plain scared to raise taxes to fund such essentials as a decent education are all part of the story.
Sarasota schools have been a shining exception to the shameful Florida norm. Unwilling to settle for the kind of education that the state will fund, Sarasotans have made up the difference with county tax dollars. Over the years, Sarasota has built an outstanding system that's recognized all over the country for innovative programs, highly qualified-and highly paid-teachers, and students who score at stellar levels on achievement tests and SATs. Last year, Expansion Management magazine, the Bible for executives who decide where companies should relocate, named us the only "Gold Star" system in Florida.
But in the last few years, Sarasota has been slammed with rising costs and decreasing revenues, and our system is starting to suffer. No, Sarasota didn't go on a spending spree. But we did get lots of new students (about 900 a year), and inflation means it costs more to run our existing programs every year. We also have to keep adding new programs required by the state, further increasing expenses.
Meanwhile, funds from the state have been shrinking. We started out this year getting less money for each student than we did last year; then, on top of that, the state didn't collect all the taxes it expected to, and schools had to make emergency mid-year budget cuts.
All this has meant a series of increasingly painful cuts. Classes are bigger, up by 25 percent in the past three years. Summer school is gone. Guidance counselors, already overtaxed, now have ridiculous case loads-imagine one high school counselor advising 700 high school students! Schools have cut support staff, including many aides and janitors, which means teachers and principals are taking on all sorts of non-teaching tasks, from mopping floors to patrolling the lunch room-not the best use of their talents or our money. Also gone: after-school and pre-school tutoring programs, many computer labs and classes, and in-school classes in driver's education.
Everybody is bracing for more big cuts in the fall, as Florida feels the financial effects of the slumping economy and the drop in air travel and tourism. Because of the state shortfalls, insiders expect Sarasota to have to cut another 10 percent of its operating budget this fall. Already down to the bare bones, the schools will have to eliminate programs most of us consider vital. Athletics, music and art classes and second-chance schools for troubled students could get the axe; so could many teachers, with class sizes rising by 10 students or so; we could even soon be looking at double sessions. "We're going to be taking apart and dismantling Sarasota's system of excellence," warns Richard Hayes of the Citizens for Better Schools.
The school tax, which will bring in about $25 million a year, can keep that from happening. But it won't bring back the golden days when small classes, special programs and enrichment activities were the norm in Sarasota. "It can get us about to where we were on Sept. 10, which was not good," says Hayes. "But at least it helps us protect the basics of our system."
Okay-so the schools need the money. But why should anyone besides parents and teachers care about protecting the basics of the system?
Good schools are the hallmarks of successful communities. Show me a city with an exceptional school system, and I'll show you a city where the streets are safe, the arts flourish, trees are planted and property values keep rising. Good schools mean people care about the quality of life here, and that attracts the kind of new residents and companies we want. Sarasota's Committee for Economic Development will tell you that our schools have been as strong a selling point as our sunshine and beaches in bringing high-profile, high-paying new businesses here.
Sarasota's affluent, sophisticated retirees know that-which is why, contrary to popular opinion, they consistently vote for school taxes. Longboat Key, which has only 54 public school students, was the precinct that most strongly supported the 2000 school referendum. (That referendum failed, but that was probably more about the unpopularity of then-superintendent David Bennett than about Sarasotans not caring about their schools.)
But economic self-interest aside, we should vote for the tax increase because it's the right thing to do.
Some of the world's most successful people come to Sarasota to reap the rewards of their achievements: gorgeous sunsets and Gulf waters, luxurious mansions and world-class arts, entertainment and shopping. Others of us, equally dazzled with the city's beauty and opportunities, came with little and managed to build our success here. Now that we've enjoyed everything Sarasota has to offer, shouldn't we offer some opportunity to others?
I'm thinking of the kids we see walking to school or waiting for the bus as we drive down U.S. 41 or through our neighborhoods. Maybe that wide-eyed little first-grader, staring up at a cloud as he waits by the crossing guard, will discover his own creative gifts in art class. Or that pensive middle-school girl, lagging behind a clutch of her classmates, might desperately need to talk to a counselor about what's happening at home-if only she knew one who wasn't too busy or distant to approach. Will that boy darting in and out of traffic get the help he needs when he's transferred from his small, special-needs class into a classroom bursting with kids and without any aides? And how about that girl with the chalky white makeup, all-black outfit and gloomy face? If she can't fit into Riverview, will she have the option of enrolling in New View, an alternative high school where the principal and teachers work miracles with kids who thought they were outcasts and losers? That preppy-looking blonde giggling with friends in front of Sarasota High seems happy enough, but how will she fare in a geometry class with 40 restless classmates, especially now that there's no after-school tutoring in place?
Those kids, as full of energy and dreams and longings as we once were, are the real reason we should vote for the tax next month. They deserve to grow up in a town that not only has expensive restaurants, famous art and attractions and a glittering new Ritz-Carlton, but schools that give them a chance to have their shot at success.