Florida: Waste and Abuse at the Sarasota County School Board

SB composite-photo (1)The Sarasota County School Board took up a discussion on a way to save the district money. The discussion died due to three school board members: Caroline Zucker, Jane Goodwin and Shirley Brown. This issue was about the costs associated with holding a tax increase referendum during an off year rather than during the November general election cycle. Here are some facts about the March tax increase referendum:

  • The tax increase referendum costs the School District $324,827.84 every four years. Five of these referendums have taken place costing approximately $1,714,139 to date.
  • Voter turnout is 16.76% during March referendums versus over 75% during a General Election.
  • The District March referendum suppresses the vote.
  • The Sarasota County School Board receives over 58% of all property taxes in the county.

The issue:

When the Sarasota County School Board has a “discussion” about issues, they get the feel for how everyone votes and then if there’s not a majority, they don’t schedule a public vote on it because they assume it’ll lose.

They only bring up winning votes instead of forcing votes and putting people on record. The threat of being on record and the accountability that comes from that could actually sway votes during a regularly scheduled School Board meeting. It would also allow for public input on this and many other issues that never make it out of these “discussions.” Discussions appear to be designed to keep important items off of the public meetings agenda.

This is a huge problem and amounts to the abuse of Sarasota County taxpayers, parents and voters.

Watch the video of the discussion held on August 17th, 2015:

During the discussion School Board (SB) Member Bridget Ziegler pushed to have the discussion about moving the Referendum to the General Election. SB Member Frank Kovach aggressively supported moving it as well.

Two of the three SB Members who opposed the move said that it would still pass in November. Caroline Zucker said it would pass in November (at 12:40) but opposed moving and saving money. Shirley Brown also said it would pass in November (at: 10:33 & 12:33) but opposed moving and saving money. Jane Goodwin did NOT support moving it.

Question: So why not save the money and hold the referendum in November?

There is no cost to the School District and taxpayers to add the tax increase referendum to the General Election unless it appears as a stand alone item on an extra sheet of paper, then the cost is only for the paper that is printed on for that one page, a minimal cost.

Those opposed argued that moving the tax increase referendum causes confusion for voters if they vote against referendum and then it’s still continuing from a previous vote. However, SB Member Kovach noted that the Sarasota County Commission did this and it caused no voter confusion.

The opposing SB members worried about the ballot getting crowded and being missed.  See: Too much on ballot SB Member Zucker at 12:40 in the above video. However, SB Member Ziegler rips that apart by referencing voter turnout for the items at the ballot during a presidential general being at 50%+ rather than under 17%. It is also easy to vote via absentee ballot and during the early voting period.

Question: Why should the SB make it more difficult to vote? People aren’t used to voting in March.

Why are Zucker, Brown and  Goodwin so concerned with the campaign to push for supporting the tax increase referendum rather than what’s best for taxpayers? Ziegler notes how bottom of the ballot items during a general election are three times higher than the tax increase referendum turnout. That means more voter engagement, not less.

SB Members have tried to paint first term SB Member Bridget Ziegler as a rookie. Maybe it’s good to have a fresh perspective to understand how much money this is costing the district. Maybe Ziegler is telling the truth and is being silenced at the expense of Sarasota County taxpayers?

Currently the tax referendum happens and is pitched as a rush and then when it’s passed there’s a rush on how to spend the money. It’s easy to spend money when it is not yours on off season tax increase referendums rather than on public school children. Especially when most of that money is used not to improve the classroom.

As SB Member Kovach pointed out the scheduling of the tax increase referendum is “more about victory versus the will of the people.”

Zucker is up for reelection. Perhaps she, Goodwin and Brown need to explain their anti-voter and anti-taxpayer positions?

Pinellas County Commissioners defy voter-approved term limits

Of the 20 charter counties in Florida, voters in 11 have overwhelmingly approved term limits for their county commissions. Ten of them recognize and respect the law.

The exception is Pinellas County.

In 1996, 73 percent of voters in Pinellas approved a countywide referendum that limited their county commissioners and county constitutional officers to eight years in office. Since then, a split Florida Supreme Court in Cook (2002) decided that counties don’t have the right to impose term limits on constitutional officers. But the Pinellas County commission decided the Cook decision applied to them as well even though the Supreme Court never ruled on commissioner limits in Cook or any other decision.

Until this year. In May, the Supreme Court not only clearly affirmed the constitutionality of county commissioner term limits, but also overturned its previous ruling in Cook regarding constitutional officers.

There is no longer any question whatever about the legality of county term limits in the state of Florida. Sarasota County – the only other county that was defying their voter-approved term limits law – accepted the Supreme Court decision and is now enforcing their popular 8-year term limits.

And yet, the Pinellas county commissioners continue to claim the law does not apply to them. The commissioners do not believe this is true. They simply want to keep their well-paid positions of power and are willing to brazenly defy the law – overwhelmingly approved by the people — in order to keep them.

In Pinellas County, 8-year term limits are currently in the charter. It was never amended to remove them. There is no court ruling that nullified the county commission term limits. On the contrary, there is now a Florida Supreme Court ruling explicitly affirming them.

It is not as if the voters are calling for their repeal. In 2009, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 79 percent of voters in the greater Bay area believe that their politicians should be term limited. Furthermore, the polling suggested that 78 percent prefer that the proper term limit is eight years and opposed longer limits.

Pinellas County commissioners should act honorably and obey the law. The four who have exceeded their legal term limit should resign before being forced to do so by the courts.