Vote “Yes” on March 16th

Mother Nature has been exceedingly generous in the amenities she’s bestowed on Southwest Florida.  Our top-rated beaches and magnificent web of pristine waterways—enjoyed amid abundant year-round warmth and sunshine—are why so many newcomers choose Sarasota County over all other possibilities in the Sunshine State.

The amenities we should be proudest of, however, are the ones we’ve bestowed on ourselves.  These, of course, include an impressive list of educational and cultural amenities; which continuously attract newcomers wanting more on their family’s horizon than a picturesque sunset.   As a community striving for a better brand of economic stability than we’ve gotten of late from tourism and development, it will ultimately be the quality of our public schools that will attract the businesses that help us diversify.  Virtually any town on Florida’s two coasts offers plentiful recreational amenities; but the decision of where to re-locate a business—or start a new one—is more apt to turn on the quality of an area’s school system rather than the sum of its beach and boating opportunities.

We should congratulate ourselves therefore for the steps we’ve taken over the years to improve the quality and output of our schools. In a state not renowned for the scintillating quality of its public schools, the voters of Sarasota County have gone to the polls time and again to reject mediocrity in their home district.   Most recently, in 2006, we voted “Yes” to renew our 2002 pledge of setting aside one mill in annual property taxes to preserve our top-ranked schools.

On Tuesday, March 16 we are being asked to renew this pledge again at a time when its critical funding has never been more urgently needed.   Please join us; first by showing up at the polls to have your voice heard on this important issue.  Then if you believe as we do in the power of good schools to bring prosperity to a region, please vote “Yes” for another four-year continuation of the one mill.  Early voting for the referendum commences Monday, March 1st.  To learn more about the absentee and early voting schedule; or to preview a sample of the referendum ballot visit srqelections.com.

Voting “Yes” will NOT increase your taxes. It simply authorizes continuing the millage we currently pay, while renewing our commitment to the scope and excellence of Sarasota County public schools.  All funds raised by the one mill stay within Sarasota County to be used for the sole benefit of our schools.    (Note:  One mill = $100 for every $100,000 of your home’s assessed value after you’ve taken your $25,000 homestead exemption.  The owner of a house valued at $300,000 would pay $275.)

It’s well worth noting that even with the one mill property tax on its books, Sarasota County’s school millage is still 11th lowest in a state that ranks 41st in the nation in per pupil spending; and only three rungs from the bottom in per capita taxes.  In other words, by insisting on superior schools for our kids we aren’t being asked to shoulder an unfair tax burden.  This is a fair tax that pays untold dividends forward to our children and grandchildren; while enhancing the quality of life for everyone in the county.  As we’ve seen on countless occasions while showing homes to newcomers considering our region, entire communities are judged by the overall quality of their public schools.   If you’re likewise planning to move a business to Florida, you’d like to think that the community you choose will offer the pick of Florida’s best educated workforce.

So how does our report card read after the second four-year continuation of the one mill tax?

Sarasota County is currently designated as an “A” district by the Florida Department of Education; with 95 percent of elementary schools and 84 percent of all schools receiving “A” or “B” grades in 2009.  Sarasota students scored 23 points higher than the state average on the 2009 SAT test in reading, 26 points higher in math and 21 points in writing.  Versus the national average, Sarasota students scored 19 points higher in reading, nine points higher in math and eight points higher in writing; and consistently outscored the other 67 Florida counties on graduation requirements.  Moreover, Sarasota County schools rank above, while Florida ranks below national averages in education funding, pupil-to-teacher ratio, graduation rate and the number of graduates who go on to college.

Our children’s success in school naturally traces to the quality of their teachers; and thanks largely to the one mill, we’ve been able to attract first rate teachers, pay them what their worth and keep them happy, productive and here.  Not distracted by the demoralizing pay cuts and wholesale layoffs taking place in other Florida districts, our teachers are able to focus on doing what they’ve been highly trained to do.  Over 63% of Sarasota County’s teachers possess a Master’s Degree—or higher—while the state average is below 40%.

One of our very best public schools, Pine View School for the Gifted in Osprey, is consistently ranked by the national media as one of the top ten public schools in the U.S.  This sort of stellar consistency and nationwide recognition doesn’t happen by accident or overnight.  But it’s exactly this sort of positive notoriety that often becomes the tipping point in Sarasota’s favor when new families and businesses are weighing where to settle in Florida.

Like every school system in Florida, ours has experienced drastic cuts—to the tune of nearly $70 million over the past two years—courtesy of a budget-beleaguered State House in Tallahassee.  However, this amount pales in comparison to the deeper cuts in programs and per student spending that would have come had it not been for the safety net provided by the one mill property tax.

Please keep this important source of revenue flowing into our classrooms.   Please vote “Yes” on March 16th.

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