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School Tax Referendum on Ballot In Pinellas County in November

About 115 music students from Seminole Middle School are on stage taking direction from Sarah Charness-- a classically trained violinist who seems more like a rock star. Maybe it’s her hot pink electric violin or the fact that she's played Madison Square Garden, but either way she's grabbed the students’ attention as she coaches them on how to end a song with flourish by raising their bows in the air.  

These 6th, 7th graders and 8th graders usually practice to Beethoven or Bach. But during the violin player's recent visit, the playlist didn't sound anything like a typical classical repertoire.

At the conclusion of this two-day workshop, students from Seminole High School and Middle school played a rock concert at with Charness. The violinist led the seminar as part of a music initiative called “Electrify Your Strings."

She thinks the program helps keep kids interested in playing music.

"It's amazing for critical thinking," she said. "Learning to read music just activates parts of the brain that are just so important and we can't treat music as an extracurricular. It has to be treated as a core curriculum."

Education advocates like Beth Rawlins are hoping voters feel the same on Election Day.

"In the early 2000's the legislature gave local school districts the opportunity to raise local option monies," she said. "And in 2004 we took them up on their offer and voters graced us with a half mil property tax to benefit our local school system."

Rawlins is chairwoman of Citizens for Pinellas Schools. The committee campaigns for the tax referendum and it’s her job to persuade Pinellas County residents to support its third renewal.

"If they vote yes, then a tax that they are already paying is continued, and our school system continues to reap the benefits of approximately $33 million dollars a year," she said.

Rawlins says the average homeowner in Pinellas County pays about $65 dollars a year.

That money is used to recruit and retain teachers with bonus pay, provides technology for classrooms, funds remedial reading classes and pays for music and arts programs like the workshop at Seminole Middle School.

More than half the counties in the state have used local option funding, which can pay for expenses through a property tax-- like Pinellas County has, or pay for capital improvements through a sales tax. In November, voters in Palm Beach County will see such a referendum. Last year, voters in St. John's County approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for new school construction.

But passage isn't always a slam dunk. In 2013, voters in Flagler County rejected a property tax for schools.

There isn't a lot of opposition to continue the tax in Pinellas County, in fact several school board members---both Democrats and Republicans have voiced support. 

But Rawlins hopes voters aren't complacent.

"What I am concerned about is that most of those people who have a direct connection to the school system have gotten so accustomed to this funding that they don't remember what the world looked like before we had it," she said.

If the referendum were to expire she says that would mean all programs that exceed minimum state requirements would be in jeopardy. That could mean elimination or reduction of music programs like the one at Seminole Middle School. And that, she says, would be a shame.

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