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Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Pitches Tax Increase: 'There Are No Other Options'

Jessica Bakeman
Tony Argiz, chair of a political action committee supporting the teacher pay referendum, begins a news conference at Madie Ives K-8 Center near Aventura on Tuesday morning. Miami-Dade County schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho looks on.

The superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools appealed to voters for their support of a property-tax increase to pay teachers and police officers on Tuesday, calling the Nov. 6 ballot question a "moral imperative" and stressing "there are no other options."

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho — along with union, business and community leaders — made a formal pitch for ballot question No. 362 during a news conference Tuesday morning at Madie Ives K-8 Center, near Aventura.

If voters approve the referendum on Election Day, the school district would raise about $232 million annually for four years to increase salaries for teachers and other instructional personnel like counselors and paraprofessionals. Carvalho contrasted the academic performance of the district in recent years — chiefly its first-ever A rating — with teacher salaries that lag national averages.

"What should the reward be for those who deliver these results? At least adequate compensation that keeps pace with the economic realities of our community," Carvalho said. "We cannot allow Miami-Dade to become like many other districts in the country, struggling to hire teachers because they can't afford to live in those communities."

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, the local union, argued the referendum offers hope where there is little otherwise.

"Our teachers have stepped up," she said. "But they can't live in our communities. They can't make ends meet. They're part-time uber drivers; they work at retail stores. … That's a shame. But today there's hope. We're here to tell the community that they can do right by us."

The proposed tax increase would also allow the district to employ enough police officers to meet a new state mandate for one cop on every campus without the necessity of relying on local law enforcement, Carvalho said. The district is now complying with the post-Parkland law through partnerships with municipal police forces, but some of those agreements are only valid for one year; he argued the referendum will provide a longer-term solution.

Placing a police officer on every school campus is "a moral imperative whose time has come, and we cannot abdicate from it," Carvalho said.

The superintendent argued that the Legislature has underfunded school districts, especially large urban ones like Miami-Dade. The average per-student increase in this year's budget as $101 per child, but in Miami-Dade, it was only $65. Most of that money was earmarked for school security and mental health enhancements, following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Districts were left with hardly any additional funding for educational purposes.

Regarding the cost of the requirement that police officers or armed guards should be posted at every school, Carvalho said the long-term cost will be "excessive."

"It is beyond anything that the state, in my belief, would ever commit to," he said.

A political action committee called Secure Our Future is supporting the initiative, backed by a board of business and nonprofit leaders. Also, the statewide PTA plans to launch an advocacy effort.

If approved, the tax hike would cost the typical homeowner $142 a year for the next four years. That's an increase of $0.75 per every $1,000 of assessed property value.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican and former Miami-Dade school board member who is seen as one of the most vulnerable members of Congress going into the midterms, announced his support for the referendum.

"I know a little bit about taxes. I serve on the Ways and Means Committee in the U.S. House. We write tax policy for the entire country," Curbelo said during the news conference Tuesday. "I assure our community, this is not a tax. This is actually an investment — an investment in our kids."

Carvalho and members of the school board have not yet decided exactly what percentage of the money will go to teachers and cops, respectively. But they have committed to spending at least 80 percent and as much as 90 percent on teachers. Carvalho said even the lowest level would be enough to bring teacher salaries from below the national average to above it. And the 10 to 20 percent that's leftover would be sufficient for hiring the additional police necessary — or contributing additional money toward the compensation of police officers effectively on loan from local agencies, he said.

Carvalho said if the referendum passes, the district will ask voters to approve the increase again in four years,  after it expires.

More than a quarter of counties are asking voters this fall to increase property taxes, sales taxes or both to raise money for public schools. So far, all of them have passed.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.