Boost in Florida Schools Money Triggers Tax Hike for Some

Some districts will see a tax hike to support increased funding for schools.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
    Rick Scott

    Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators have traveled the state this year boasting about the extra money they steered toward schools and teachers.

     But for some homeowners, more money for schools comes with a price: A tax increase this fall.

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    On Wednesday, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told board members the district needs fewer dollars to educate the county's 345,000 students. Late Tuesday state education officials confirmed the increase in tax revenues statewide is more than expected, meaning some school districts can lower their portion of the county's property tax rate. Board members Dr. Wilbert "Tee" Holloway and Dr. Marta Perez praised Carvalho.

    The complicated formula used by the state to match local property tax dollars with state money has required a tax increase for nearly 20 out of the state's 67 school districts. The list includes the home counties of Scott and the two leaders of the Legislature.

    Homeowners are starting to learn about the increases as school boards prepare to adopt budgets for the new school year.

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    For most districts, it's a small increase likely to add $20 to $30 more to the tax bill of the owner of a $225,000 home with a homestead exemption.

    But Rita Scallan, the finance director for Okaloosa County schools, says people are "likely to become alarmed" when they see the notice of a tax increase.

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    "What happens is the local board is the one that will take the heat," Scallan said. "But we will tell them that the local school board had no authority to adjust it."

    Republican legislators in charge of school spending are aware of the looming increases but say they aren't intentional.

    Instead they're the result of the state formula, which attempts to give each county roughly the same amount of money for each student regardless of where someone lives. The formula has been in place since the '70s.

    "This is not a pure or exact science," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and chairman of the Senate education budget committee.

    Galvano said some counties have to raise their property tax rates because they were below the state average.

    Still, Senate President Don Gaetz, former school superintendent for Okaloosa County, said Friday that he is bothered by the increases for some counties.

    "As a school board member and superintendent, I was frustrated that the Legislature often off-loaded mandatory increases onto local school districts," the Niceville Republican said in a statement.

    Gaetz said the Senate is reviewing how it might recalibrate the formula to "provide some property tax relief and better sharing of the education tax burden."

    Each year Florida lawmakers craft a state budget that relies on a mix of state and local money to pay for public schools. This year, that main pot is in excess of $18 billion.

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    To receive their share of state money, local districts must raise a certain amount through local property taxes.

    But some districts with higher property values — all of them along the coast — raise most of their money from local property taxes. If the state then increases overall school spending, it can trigger a tax increase in those "property-rich" counties.

    "That's something we don't have a control over," Sarasota County School Board Chairwoman Jane Goodwin said.

    This year, state legislators passed a budget that boosted money for schools by more than $1 billion. That increase included $480 million for teacher pay raises.

    New estimates released this month by the Department of Education show that 17 school districts will have to raise what is known as the "required local effort" property tax. Other districts will see a slight decrease in the rate.

    There could be a multitude of reasons for an increase, including that state legislators were given property tax estimates for some counties that didn't materialize. When that happens, the school district must raise its tax rate.

    Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami and chairman of the House budget committee, said school districts have known for decades that the formula is not perfect.

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    He said would be a "false way to look at it" if school districts blamed the Legislature.

    As an example, Fresen said the change could be due to the way local property appraisers valued property in an area.

    He also said districts should acknowledge that participating in the formula helps their schools overall.

    "I think that the real conversation should be: Do you not want to take additional education dollars by slightly increasing your millage rate?" Fresen said.

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