By Briana D’Andrea
Palm Beach County residents will vote on whether to continue financing a number of fine arts and other special programs throughout the Palm Beach County School District in a general election referendum Tuesday, Nov. 4.
The Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board listened last week to a presentation on the continuation of the 0.25-mill fine arts assessment made by Kristin Garrison, the district’s point person for public education efforts.
More than 90,000 students in 120 district-operated schools are expected to benefit from the levy, which generates approximately $36 million annually to support operational needs.
“All of the elementary schools in Royal Palm Beach receive at least three teachers funded by this source, for a total of 10 teachers, and last year this represented an expenditure for the district of $759,000,” Garrison said at the Oct. 6 meeting.
More than 500 programs, which include fine arts, physical education, law, medical sciences, biomedical science, aerospace science, computer technology, robotics, engineering, culinary arts, International Baccalaureate, global business, early childhood teacher education and choice/magnet teachers in district-operated schools are financed by the special levy.
“There are also eight 100-percent choice schools that your students here in Royal Palm Beach have the opportunity to apply for via the lottery and attend those schools,” Garrison added.
The referendum will affect all district-operated elementary schools, several middle schools and most high schools, with more than 500 teacher positions on the line.
“The reason for that is the district had to make specific decisions and allocations for where the money is spent, because we’re accountable to the voters for spending it exactly the way we said we were going to spend it, and that speaks to the credibility that we have when we have to go back to the voters,” she said.
If voters give the referendum the green light, property owners throughout Palm Beach County will continue paying the additional 25 cents per $1,000 of taxable value of their homes.
Essentially, that’s $25 per year, or about $2 a month, for a home assessed at $100,000 after exemptions; $50 per year for a $200,000 home; or $75 per year for a $300,000 home.
Back in 2010, when the same tax was up for renewal, it was overwhelmingly approved, Garrison said.
However, there were several members of the education advisory board who were concerned with exactly which schools were going to see the money and where it would be allocated.
“Who is a part of this committee that says what schools get what money?” Board Member Renatta Espinoza asked.
Garrison responded, “It’s part of the budget process, so there are a lot of hands in that.”
Board Vice Chair David Kendle pressed for specifics. “Nobody is giving us an answer,” he said.
“There’s not any one committee… There’s an independent oversight committee that oversees how this money is spent,” Garrison responded. “Ultimately, they’re the group. They’re appointed, independent citizens and experts who oversee the spending of the money.”
Royal Palm Beach High School Principal Jesus Armas stepped in to help explain the Independent Referendum Oversight Committee’s responsibilities.
“The IROC does not decide anything,” he said. “All they do is oversee. Once the money has been allocated, they meet quarterly and decide by looking at all the ledgers line item by line item to ensure that the monies are being spent where district staff has already said it’s going to be spent.”
That is different, Armas said, from who decides where the money goes.
“That’s all staff decision coming out of the chief operating office,” he said. “Then it gets ultimately voted on by the school board. It’s not just one committee. It’s a process.”
Espinoza expressed her hopes for the money.
“As a parent who has a child and lives in Royal Palm Beach, I wish the IROC wouldn’t just look at the district, but at the overall,” she said. “I would want the money to be shared with all the schools in Palm Beach County.”
On that topic, the school district has been at odds with charter school supporters, who also wanted a slice of the revenue. Current plans keep the money with district-run schools.
Garrison welcomed any help from the committee when it comes to marketing the referendum to parents.
She said all of the programs under discussion are not core classes and, therefore, are not subject to class-size reduction.
“Back when class-size reduction was fully implemented, many districts made the very difficult decision to cut the teachers in programs that were not subject to class-size reduction,” Garrison said. “Our strategy was to identify those positions that might get cut and use this source to fund those programs. What that enabled us to do was to avoid cuts elsewhere.”
If the referendum doesn’t pass, that will leave the school district scrambling with a huge budget gap.
“You can be assured that if we don’t get the funding source for $36 million growing to $38 million a year, that is going to impact all of the district departments and schools,” Garrison said. “We know the importance of art, especially at the young grades.”
Kendle said that he approaches the issue from a local perspective.
“It may sound selfish, but we are the Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board,” he said. “Our focus is on our kids and our community, and I’m selfish when it comes to that, so my priority is our students here.”
Armas stressed that many Royal Palm Beach students benefit from the money.
“Because of this, a lot of our kids get to go to choice programs and schools, and a lot of our elementary schools are getting physical education and art that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” he said.
Armas said the money helps the entire district.
“While I’m not allowed to advocate, I can tell you that I believe Royal Palm Beach High School would be hurt if this referendum was not to go through, even though I don’t get a particular teacher or two,” Armas said. “We’re not going to take away those 500 teachers, and all of those choice programs aren’t going to go away. So what happens? The district then has to find other ways to fund it, out of the operating budget.”
Garrison stressed that if the levy doesn’t pass, it will put the school district in a major bind.
“Our credibility is extremely important, and we need to earmark specific positions,” she said. “In this case, we made the decision that it was going to be for all of the arts and music and P.E. teachers in all of our elementary schools, because that affects the entire community.”
Board Chair Lynn Balch said he appreciated the explanation. “It’s probably the only way we’re ever going to fund our schools, if we take more responsibility on ourselves. Sometimes you’re helping by not hurting, and that’s what this could be, too.”
On the ballot, the referendum will be Countywide Question 2 under the title “Referendum to Continue an Ad Valorem Levy for School Operational Needs.”
Should the levy continue, it will automatically expire in four years and will be up for voter approval once again in 2018. Visit www.2014referendum.org for more information.