A discussion about the date of the proposed school tax referendum in Sarasota County became heated Tuesday afternoon, before school board members dropped the subject.
The board debated the possibility of moving the March special election to approve a continued referendum for the district to the general election ballot in November. Two board members have expressed interest in moving the referendum, while three want to keep it in March.
After much heated debate, and the consensus of the board, nobody changed their mind, with 3-2 being in favor of keeping the special election. Leaving it there didn’t require a formal vote.
Board members Eric Robinson and Bridget Ziegler strongly favored moving the referendum to the general election.
“Fundamentally I believe this is the right thing to do,” said Ziegler.
Ziegler cited the cost-saving benefits of including the referendum on the general ballot. The district could hold the vote at no additional cost in November, instead of spending upwards of $250,000 to hold a special election in March, she said.
“We just had a budget discussion, projecting 2021-2022 to be a very difficult year,” she said.
Ziegler argued that by moving the referendum vote, the board would be displaying foresight, anticipating the economic downfall to come, as result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ziegler said the district won’t likely see the impacts of the pandemic until the 2021-22 school year.
“The best (return on investment) is going to be if we can spend zero dollars and have it continue,” Ziegler said.
The current referendum is not set to expire until 2022. The district estimates it receives $60 million in operating dollars per year from the four-year referendum. Passing the referendum would add $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value of a property to tax bills.
Board member Shirley Brown responded to a comment Ziegler had made about the cost of the special March election being “irresponsible.”
“I don’t really think that you’re qualified,” Brown started. “I don’t think you have worked on this enough, or have enough experience with this kind of referendum enough to make that assertion.”
Brown argued that there are too many uncertainties and too many new things happening in the district to also add the referendum campaign on top of that.
Brown also took a shot at Eric Robinson, who had earlier talked about his experience with elections. “You’ve said you know more about running elections than anybody else, because you’ve taken money from this PAC and that PAC,” Brown said.
Brown told Ziegler and Robinson that she was initially in favor of moving the election, but things have changed. Due to the district moving forward with the search for a new superintendent, the board needs to be willing to change and adapt as circumstances change, she argued.
“You gotta go out with a message. The message is ‘How am I going to spend that money?’ We don’t know!” Brown said. “It’s not up to us, it’s going to be part of what this new superintendent comes and brings to the board.”