School Funding Referendum Scorecard

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Marion County’s school funding referendum will be voted on this November. It was approved by the Marion County school board and sent to the ballot by the Marion Board Of County Commissioners unanimously earlier this year. Here is the language voters will see on their November ballot:

Shall the Marion County School District's ad valorem millage be increased by a total of one mill, beginning July 1, 2015 and ending June 30, 2019, for the necessary operating expenses including reading, physical education, art, music, library/media and vocational programs; meeting class size requirements; and retaining State Certified teachers and paraprofessionals with oversight of these expenditures by an independent citizens financial oversight committee?

 ___ YES

 ___ NO

Where does Marions United stand?

Marions United For Public Education strongly supports the school funding referendum. In 2013, we brought together the community coalition that wrote the referendum. We believe it is - by far - the best solution to ensuring great people and programs that help our students are both protected and restored in the years ahead.

After seven years and tens of millions in cuts, we believe it is long past time to boost community investment and begin the process of restoring essential programs like art, music, libraries, and physical education. In order to improve the education our students receive, voters should know that simply cutting the budget further and expecting better results is not a serious option. Budget cutting without additional investment has been the strategy of the Marion County school district for seven years and it has failed. Those who advocate for more cuts or believe there is some better distribution of existing resources are simply perpetuating a failed status quo that has done great harm to our children and our community.

Below, find our analysis of the reasons why candidates were both for and against the school funding referendum. To get a more in depth view of the candidates and their positions on a range of issues, we recommend reading the candidates’ responses to the Marion Chamber and Economic Partnership’s (CEP) questionnaire. We also recommend reading some of the transcriptions of previous candidate forums generously provided by Save Ocala’s Schools on Facebook.

Why were candidates in favor of the referendum?

Bobby James (District 3) and Angie Boynton (District 4) both support the referendum, but did not elaborate in their responses to the CEP. In forums, both have noted the need to restore art and music. James in particular has noted the need to begin funding vocational programs.

Jamie Bevan (District 4) supports the referendum as well, with caveats that she expects to see the funds used as written in the language. Since Bevan is running for school board, we expect that if elected she would work diligently to oversee the school district’s budget and make responsible appointments to the Independent Citizens Financial Oversight Committee. To her credit, Bevan pledged at the July Friday Forum that she would make sure funds are invested as intended. Bevan also noted the legislature’s habit to divert funding away from public education as a reason for supporting the referendum.

Diane Schrier (District 4) noted her support for the referendum stems from the failure of the state legislature to adequately fund public education, and its ongoing efforts to divert funds away from the public education system to charter schools and private school vouchers. She also noted the district has already cut their budget significantly. 

Jim Touchton (District 3) stated the need to restore basic programs for students and praised the accountability components of the referendum, noting: “The inclusion of an independent citizen’s oversight committee and an automatic sunset provision make this referendum a respectable effort to correct the State’s underfunding of its Public Education system.” However, Touchton provided a caveat that he would end the referendum early if funds could be found elsewhere in the budget to fund programs like art and music. We believe this is an unlikely possibility considering both the level of cuts made over the previous seven years and the consistent record of underfunding by the Florida Legislature.

Why were candidates opposed to the referendum?

Both Chase Basinger (District 4) and Ed Wilson (District 3) cite their opposition to a tax increase as the main reason for opposing the referendum.

Basinger describes a “credibility problem” with the district noting “This [referendum] has been tried many times within the last several years. I do not support threatening taxpayers with teacher layoffs, then, when the District doesn’t get its way after an election, go back and hire the teachers that were released.” This is incorrect on a couple of points. First, the school board has only attempted a referendum to fund operations once in the previous ten years, a near last minute attempt in 2012 which failed narrowly. Second, Marion County Public Schools laid off 161 first year teachers and paraprofessionals on May 31, 2013, months after the failure of the school funding referendum on August 14, 2012, not before. The 60 first year teaching positions were restored later in the summer of 2013, but only due to the high number of both retirements and resignations that occurred after the May 31st announcement. The other 101 layoffs of teacher aides were permanent. These initial layoffs were not threats, but harsh fiscal realities after the school district failed to secure additional revenue through the 2012 referendum. We believe it’s imperative Marion County not make the same mistake twice in 2014. 

Jane Moerlie (District 3) described her opposition as follows: “I do not support it unless the current leadership discovers ways to cut cost in administration. We cannot ask for more from the taxpayers until we become a good steward of their money.” In 2011, Marion County ranked 65th in lowest administrative costs out of 67 counties. Today, Marion County has only become more efficient, currently ranking 66th. Many administrative positions are required by the state and despite conventional wisdom, very little savings can be gained from administrative cuts. The task of restoring art, music, library, and PE, plus hiring enough teachers to truly meet class size standards along with lost paraprofessional positions (teacher aides) will cost roughly $12-16 million. There is simply no way that administrative cost cutting could cover the amount needed. 

It should be noted that none of the candidates opposing Marion County’s school funding referendum have yet provided a specific plan for what areas and positions they prefer to cut along with estimated savings. None of the candidates opposing the referendum have provided a specific proposal for how they plan to restore art, music, libraries, PE, and lost teaching and paraprofessional positions eliminated in 2013 or previous years. 

Why were candidates undecided?

Ron Crawford (District 5) as a current member of the school board voted to put the school funding referendum on the November ballot. However, Crawford remains undecided on the overall issue noting “Yes, the school system could use the money but the finally [sic] ballot language does not ensure that the items listed as part of the ballot language well be the items that the money is used on. I proposed ballot language that would have ensured the money could only be used for the items that the voters thought that they were voting for. My proposal was not approved by a majority of the Board.”

On the first point, Mr. Crawford is a member of the school board. We presume that should he win another term that he will work diligently to oversee the school district’s budget and make responsible appointments to the Independent Citizens Financial Oversight Committee which oversees the referendum’s funds.

On the second point, Mr. Crawford’s original proposal was only a half mill and could only be used in years that didn’t involve a salary raise for teachers. This made little practical sense, which is why the school board rejected it.

Kelly King (District 5) stated in her written response to the CEP that she supports the referendum as long as funds are allocated appropriately. However, King has potentially changed her position, reportedly saying in a forum hosted by the Marion County NAACP, “I was originally for it but then when I really examined it more carefully, I don't think we need it. If the District can pay over $100,000 for an attorney when we need teachers I cannot support it.” We'll again point out that the task of restoring art, music, library, and PE, plus hiring enough teachers to truly meet class size standards along with lost paraprofessional positions (teacher aides) will cost roughly $12-16 million. If King's remarks at the NAACP forum are accurate, she owes the public a specific plan for how she plans to restore these programs, and not simplistic anecdotes.

We asked about King's position from her campaign, but we received no reply to our email request for clarification. At the risk of misstating King's position, we have her listed as undecided.

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