Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace.
As the saying goes, watch what you wish for. And in a twist of fateful words, watch what you vote for.
For instance, watch how you vote on any referendum that permits a city, county or school board to tax you more. It just happened here. In last year’s election, Nassau County voters approved an additional one-mill property tax to hire and retain “high quality” public-school teachers.
Or so we thought. Residents learned plenty about the referendum when they received their tax bills. Local school taxes spiked like the summer heat index. And the new one-mill in taxes generated significantly more than anticipated for local schools, as property values rose by 14 percent countywide.
The one-mill tax rate applied to a higher property base produced $6 million more than anticipated. Instead of $13 million in new taxes, it generated $19 million. And the school district is keeping the entire windfall.
There’s more to our crash-course education. The school district had positioned the referendum this way on its website: “Most of the (anticipated) $13.7 million raised each year will go toward teacher compensation.”
This isn’t the way it is working out, however. A sizable portion of the new taxes will be diverted to purposes other than teacher’s salaries. The exact numbers are unclear at this point. A committee appointed by the school board will follow how the money is spent.
Within a scandal-like fallout, the blame falls solely on school officials. Superintendent Kathy Burns and school board members must clear the air with residents – you can’t sweep this issue under the desk.
Let’s not blame the property appraiser for the overage. Mike Hickox’s office has been inundated with calls protesting the tax hike. But Hickox has no fault here.
Hickox did his job, appraising county property by state law. In contrast, school officials did a sales job.
If you want to complain, contact the local school district or attend a meeting. Many residents are expressing their outrage online. Local Facebook pages are filled with scuttlebutt and protest.
If you supported the referendum, you got what you wanted. However, let’s speak up next time before a vote of this magnitude.
In terms of impact, business owners are hit the hardest. Without homestead protection, they suffer the most. And small business owners may not have kids in our schools. While retirees certainly don’t.
For one, I opposed the referendum, like 47 percent of county voters. I felt it gave the school district a line of credit. And I questioned where the money would go.
An educated resident, Richard Lamken, sent a letter to the school officials, complaining about the taxes. Lamken is a retired school administrator who regularly attends school board meetings. In his letter, Lamken cited “taxpayers’ belief they were sold a bill of goods in the one-mill referendum marketing.” And he has a valid point.
Blindly throwing money at public schools doesn’t work, here or anywhere else. Look at Baltimore’s inner-city schools, if you want proof. Each year, millions of dollars are funneled into a corrupt, top-heavy district there. And the routine fails miserably.
We are not accusing anyone here of corruption. The local school district has done an admirable job over the years. It has received stellar grades statewide.
However, other places aren’t so fortunate. And we don’t want to go down the wrong path here.
Regardless of the path, higher school taxes are here to stay. Staffing shortages are commonplace, not just with teachers. We can’t find bus drivers or cafeteria workers or custodians either. Especially not in rural areas.
And how will public schools keep pace with the influx of migrant students, who speak different languages? Translators and other instructional workers are required to accommodate many different languages and cultures.
Partly, it’s a by-product of an open U.S. border. Every state is now a border state. Look at the numbers.
Even the embattled mayor of New York City is calling out for help. Mayor Eric Adams is alerting residents about the spiraling costs of public education. Taxes are high enough already there.
The logistics of teaching migrant children is enough of a challenge. The exorbitant costs add another complication. And these demands are recurring, severe.
In the future, hopefully voters here will educate themselves about public-school issues. Before creating and disbursing more taxpayer funds. This problem is unfolding as smoothly as a rusty beach chair. Here, and everywhere else.
Steve Nicklas is the managing partner of Nicklas Wealth Management in Fernandina Beach. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns also regularly appear in weekly newspapers in Northeast Florida and in Southeast Georgia, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He has also done financial reports for area radio stations and for National Public Radio in Jacksonville. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 904-753-0236.