Power struggle between School Board and County Commission headed to court

It’s more important to stand up for students than risk alienating Indian River County commissioners, the School Board decided in asking a state judge to settle a dispute over the date of a school tax referendum.

The struggle between the county’s two most powerful and important elected boards was triggered on May 12, when the County Commission voted 4-1 to hold the referendum on Nov. 3, despite a public plea from the School Board for a vote in August.

At the School Board’s request, the Commission voted on the matter a second time a week later. The vote tally changed to 3-2 but the decision stayed the same.

The next day, the School Board filed an emergency complaint asking Judge Janet Croom to order the County Commission to meet by June 4 to place the tax referendum on the Aug. 18 primary ballot.

June 5 is the deadline for submitting the question to Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan for it to be included on the ballot for the Aug. 18 primary.

County Attorney Dylan Reingold and other county officials Friday started reviewing the complaint and preparing a response.

The School Board’s complaint asks Croom to determine that it is the board’s clear legal right to direct the County Commission to place the school tax referendum on the Aug. 18 primary ballot.

“I’ve heard other board members say we don’t want the county commission to be offended because we’re going out for this, [and asking the court to intervene],” said School Board Chairwoman Laura Zorc.

“I too ask that they not be offended that we’re going out for this,” Laura Zorc said. “But this is something that if we don’t address it now, in four years from now, we’re going to be dealing with the same thing. So it’s better to go ahead and get the answer now so in four years we know where we stand on this.”

School Board member Jacqueline Rosario said she didn’t want to fight the county commissioners, but believes holding the referendum on Aug. 18 is in the best interest of students.

“I don’t think this is challenging the county commissioners and entering into a boxing match with them,” Rosario said. “This is only an issue of trying to be on the ballot in August.”

School Board member Tiffany Justice took a more hardline approach.

“I don’t believe it’s the County Commission’s right to second guess our judgment on things like contract negotiations or how our budget is presented,” Justice said. “That’s not what’s best for kids and I’m tired of our children being used as political pawns.”

The power struggle between Indian River County’s two most important elected boards arose out of a School Board proposal to extend a $0.50 per $1,000 optional property tax rate for school operations for another four years.

The optional property tax, which raised $9.4 million in 2019, is due to expire June 30, 2021, county records show. If approved by voters, the extension will start July 1, 2021 and end June 30, 2025.

The owner of a house with a taxable value of $250,000 pays an extra $125 per year in property taxes as a result of the optional school tax rate.

Voters last extended the optional property tax rate in the Aug. 30, 2016 primary with 64.26 percent approving, elections records show.

Superintendent of Schools David Moore said holding the referendum on Aug. 18, instead of Nov. 3, would enable him to negotiate multi-year contracts with vendors that would save $200,000 per year.

But several county commissioners said they opted to place the school tax referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot because general elections typically attract more than twice as many voters as primary elections.

“I appreciate the discussion today but continue to believe the Board of County Commissioners has the right and the duty to choose the date of the referendum,” said Commissioner Bob Solari. “By far the better date is Nov. 3 when we can expect the greater number of citizens to be at the polls.”

Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said the state legislature has been pushing for all local tax referendums to be conducted during the general elections in November and he didn’t want to risk going against the trend.

Commissioner Tim Zorc, the School Board chairwoman’s husband, switched sides from his vote on May 11 and joined Commission Chairwoman Susan Adams in support of the Aug. 18 referendum date.

Zorc said he changed his mind after his research showed general election voters frequently focus on the offices at the top of the ticket and skip the ballot questions at the bottom.

“I would prefer to preserve our relationship with the School District,” Adams said. “I don’t want to make these decisions for them.”

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