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Officials warn that Miami-Dade schools will face cuts if voters don't approve tax hike

C.M. Guerrero
El Nuevo Herald
Miami-Dade County Public Schools are asking voters to renew and increase a property tax they first approved in 2018. If it passes, it would raise an estimated $400 million a year.

The cost of living in South Florida has increased dramatically in recent months — with the consumer price index up 10% between August 2021 and August 2022. Still, Miami-Dade County Public Schools is asking residents to dig into their pockets and increase their own property taxes to help raise money for staff pay and safety initiatives.

The district is asking voters to renew and increase a tax referendum that residents overwhelmingly approved in 2018. The measure is estimated to raise about $400 million dollars a year, which the district has earmarked for increasing teacher pay and investing in school safety.

At a recent town hall on the referendum at Booker T. Washington Senior High School, MDCPS Superintendent Jose Dotres warned that the district will lose teachers if the measure fails.

“If this referendum were not to pass…we will not be able to attract or retain the best teachers for our students,” Dotres said. “We will not be able to recruit and attract the best police officers.”

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Over the past four years, the district has relied on the funds raised from the referendum to boost teachers’ supplemental pay and more than double the number of police officers in schools.

Under a state law passed in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting, all schools must have a safety officer on site — a significant personnel cost that has strained district budgets across Florida.

If the measure fails and the 2018 referendum expires, Dotres says the district will be forced to make major cuts to cover the salaries of school police and other critical staff.

“Art, music, bilingual education… trust me when I say that many school districts do not offer these programs. They're very expensive. Some of those would be at the table to be impacted and reduced,” Dotres said.

Ron Steiger, the district's chief financial officer, says if the referendum fails, the impacts will be dire.

"In terms of what is most important heading into the next fiscal year, there is nothing more important than our conversation we're having about the vital, vital importance of ensuring the referendum passes in November," Steiger told the school board at a meeting in September. "It will have drastic, drastic effects on the district's financials."

The measure would set the tax rate at one mill, or $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s an increase from the .75 mill set by the 2018 referendum.

According to the district, the tax hike will cost the average homeowner about $20 a month, which is roughly $6 more than the current rate.

District officials say they’re increasing the millage rate in part because they must now share the proceeds of the tax increase with charter schools.

A vocal opponent of the MDCPS referendum is Monica Colucci, a newly-elected member of the school board who will take office later this month. She’s said the district should cut services before raising taxes.

“I feel very confident within a $7 billion budget, that that money can be found. Because we cannot in this time of inflation keep raising taxes,” Colucci told WLRN in August. “There are people struggling right now.”

School Board Member Marta Pérez, who lost her re-election bid to Colucci, has also raised concerns about selling the tax increase to voters, especially at a time when state lawmakers are touting their own efforts to raise teacher pay.

“The message everywhere [from state lawmakers] is ‘we’re giving more to teachers, we’re giving more to teachers.’ And people at home are looking at their bills and it’s substantially more,” Pérez said at a board meeting in May. “I’m wondering how we’re going to address the message that some people are going to say, ‘Look, I’m already paying more already.’ ”

Still, school districts across South Florida have resorted to property tax increases to cover shortfalls in their budgets in recent years — and some have successfully convinced residents to renew the measures this cycle.

Voters in Broward and Monroe Counties approved similar proposals in August. In a question on the Nov. 8 ballot, the School District of Palm Beach County is asking residents there to maintain their current property tax rate of 1 mill.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter