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Tea Party urges ‘No’ vote on school referendum

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of August 2, 2012)

Leaders of the Indian River County Tea Party group want their members to vote against the Aug. 14 school district referendum to increase taxes by $32.7 million over the next four years.

Tea Party members say the school district is rushing the vote by trying to push it through during the slow summer period when many residents are at their homes up north. Instead, they would rather the district wait until November when the presidential election will serve as a magnet to attract voters to the polls.

Karl Zimmermann, a tea party board member, said the way his organization sees the vote on the tax increase is that the more voters who cast ballots on the measure the better.

On top of that, he said the public needs time to actually understand why the school district needs the money.

History clearly shows a presidential general election will attract far more voters than a primary held during Florida's sweltering summer.

When voters were asked in the 2010 November election to approve a critical needs levy of .25 mills to pay for textbooks and teachers at the Indian River School District, slightly more than 45,000 residents cast ballots on the measure. Turnout was just 50 percent of all registered voters.

By comparison, in the 2008 primary, only 26,824 ballots were cast, representing 31.43 percent of all registered voters or less than one in three voters.

With a .60 mill tax increase this time, school committee members decided in May that the fewer voters the better.

School board members claim they chose to put the referendum on the August primary ballot, in part, to reach what they thought would be a better-informed and more favorable target audience.

“People who care about education will get out and vote,” School Board vice Chairwoman Carol Johnson said during a budget workshop earlier this year.

School Board member Karen Disney-Brombach added the November general election ballot would be so long the district could risk voters giving up before they get through the ballot.

Eleven races and 11 referendums already are on the Nov. 6 ballot, said Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan.

Zimmermann doesn’t care for the board’s rhetoric when it made its decision. He said the public needs time to actually understand why the school district needs more money. 

Members of the school district held a public hearing in late June to state their case for the tax increase.  About three dozen people attended – considerably more than in 2010 when journalists at a similar town hall meeting on the 2010 tax levy outnumbered the members of the public in attendance.  

Zimmerman said four of his six board members attended the June town hall-style meeting.

“We did some private evaluation on our own and decided this was not the way to go,” Zimmermann said.

The tea party also took a stand against the 2010 school tax increase.

Mark Mucher, a board member of the Indian River County Taxpayers Association and a tea party supporter, said his organization already voted against supporting the tax levy before attending the town hall meeting.

“We really didn’t learn anything new (at the meeting) except that we were further being misled,” Mucher said.

From the start, school officials have claimed the levy request is not a tax increase because the .60-mill request will replace two measures – a .25-mills tax approved in 2010 and .35-mills tax passed in 1990.

Critics like Zimmermann and Mucher say that is disingenuous because both of those measures will expire in July 2103 and residents' property tax bills would drop. Approval of the levy means they'd go up .60 mills when the old levies expire.

The tax rate is assessed per $1,000 of taxable assessed value of a property. If voters approve the levy they would continue to pay 60 cents per $1,000 of their homes’ assessed value for this measure.

“We haven’t had a chance to have true public dialogue,” said Zimmermann.

That’s why tea party board members sent out an e-mail blast July 23 encouraging some 1,800 people on its mailing list to vote against the school board tax increase.

“Why has the school board raced for an August referendum when a November referendum would have provided sufficient time for the  to: 1) understand this new funding request, 2) to review the school board’s overall budget and 3) to give the school board time to respond to questions from the public?

“This budget is massive and not easily understood by the public,” the e-mail says.  “We believe the education of every child is critical to the quality of our future society. Public education can and should be accomplished in an efficient and transparent manner. Unfortunately this funding proposal has been hastily put on the ballot without proper opportunity for public scrutiny.” 

Staff writer Debbie Carson contributed to this report.