Miami Herald: “Miami-Dade is an A-rated school district. Will voters decide to pay teachers more?”

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Fed up with lack of funding from Tallahassee and under pressure from a frustrated teacher corps that can’t keep up with skyrocketing costs of living, the Miami-Dade County school district may soon turn to voters for help.

MORE: Find your school’s grade here.

At a special board meeting Wednesday, the School Board unanimously voted to direct district staff to develop language for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot. It would ask voters if they would pay more in property taxes to supplement educator salaries and fund school safety personnel.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho saw an immediate justification for the tax increase. He announced during the meeting that school grades were released by the state and Miami-Dade was an A-rated district, one of only two in the state’s six largest districts. For the second year in a row, no traditional school in the district earned an F. Eleven schools received a temporary grade of incomplete, which means they might not have tested enough students or were flagged because there may be questions about their results.

“The news could not have come at a better time,” Carvalho said. “When I say the performance justifies it, Miami Dade Public Schools has justified their return on investment.”

The details of which educators would qualify for the extra pay and how much voters could expect to dole out have yet to be ironed out. With a county tax roll of $322 billion, district officials presented how much the average homeowner would pay with four rates the board could choose to levy.

A homeowner with an average-priced home of $203,169 would pay between $44.54 and $178.17 additionally per year. That would generate $77 million to $309 million for the district.

To put it in perspective, a 1 percent raise for all teachers costs about $13 million, said Chief Financial Officer Ron Steiger.

Carvalho suggested that the lion’s share of funding generated should go to paychecks for educators and school support staff, not administrators. The rest should pay for school resource officers in the district’s police department and in agreements with municipalities, he said.

Those details may come by July 18, when the board meets again to vote on the 2018-19 budget, millage rates, referendum ballot language and a reorganization of administrative staff that could result in “significant savings,” Carvalho said.

If approved, the referendum heads to the Miami-Dade County Commission for approval. Should that pass, it would be placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

The referendum would need a simple majority to pass, 50 percent plus one vote. But it’s not automatically sustainable and would have to be renewed by voters every four years.

The referendum came at the suggestion of a task force comprised of administrators, school board appointees, teachers and community members who explored alternative funding sources to supplement teacher pay. The task force was created after board members Steve Gallon and Lubby Navarro drafted policy.

Talk at Wednesday’s board meeting turned to the district’s school grades performance, with 98 percent of schools earning a C grade or higher. Board members said that signaled it was the right time to approach voters.

“I believe we are the only vehicle that’s going to ensure that our teachers and educators get adequate compensation,” said board member Larry Feldman. “This school board and school system has been underrated for years.”

Board member Susie Castillo was not present at the meeting.

In Broward, a B-rated district, 93 percent of schools received grades of A, B or C, in line with the state average. Board members there voted to place a property tax increase on the August primary election ballot, and on Tuesday approved the breakdown of how it would spend the $93 million projected to be generated: 72 percent for teachers and school-related staff including bus drivers, assistants and food service workers, 20 percent on school resource officers and security staff, and the rest on “essential programs” such as additional guidance counselors, social workers and behavioral staff.

United Teachers of Dade, which has spent years searching for alternative ways to pay teachers more, celebrated the board’s vote.

“The state has some responsibility here but we can’t wait to solve it,” said union representative Joe Minor. “They’re [the School Board] giving the voters the opportunity to decide if they want to invest in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.”

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