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County weighs in on school referendum

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

If you thought you didn’t have to concern yourself with voting until the August primary, and then the November general election, think again.

It’s going on for the next two weeks, and it’s all about the schools.

Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley said that between June 2 and 4, her office mailed out 8,708 mail-in ballots to Franklin County voters, who must decide at this referendum whether to renew a four-year half-mill property tax levy.

First approved in 2008, and twice passed since then by countywide vote, the referendum would continue to raise, until June 30, 2024, about $1 million annually for what the ballot language terms “essential operating expenses.”

The ballot specifies the money would go to “preserve academic programs, retain highly qualified teachers (and) expand arts and music education, athletics and student activities,” noting that the Apalachicola Bay Charter School would receive a proportionate share of the monies, based on the district’s full-time student enrollment.

The ballot language also notes the district would conduct annual reporting “to ensure proper fiscal stewardship of these funds to the citizens of Franklin County.”

As of Tuesday evening, voters had returned 527 ballots, indicating a turnout so far of just under 6.5 percent. Of these, 250 were from Democrats, 206 from Republicans, and the remaining 71 from voters without party affiliation or affiliated with a minor party.

The largest chunk of votes had come in from Precinct 1, in Eastpoint, and Precinct 3 in Apalachicola, which comprises much of the Hill neighborhood, west and north of U.S. 98.

Riley said ballots sent out went to the county’s 8,195 active, eligible voters, as well as about 500 who have been placed on inactive status, because they either haven’t voted in the two most recent general elections, or have had their ballots returned undeliverable to the elections office.

She said that in the event portions of this current batch of ballots are returned undeliverable, then the system will automatically generate a response letter to the household.

“If that’s not correct, that’s going to come back as well,” she said. “If we know you personally we’ll do our best to contact you. If you have provided us your telephone or email, we’ll try to contact you.”

Having the email addresses and telephone numbers on file is the reason why, on the back of the mail-in envelope, voters have the option of providing their email address, as well as their home and mobile telephone numbers.

“It’s only if you want to provide it,” Riley said. “It is not required. For those who don’t sign, or their signatures don’t match, it gives us viable ways of contacting you.

“It’s a long process to be removed from voter rolls for just a bad address,” she said. “If they return (this ballot) it will make them on active status.”

Voters must sign and date the envelopes, affirming they will not cast more than one ballot in the election, and that if they try to commit fraud, they could be convicted of a third-degree felony, punishable by a fine of as much as $5,000 and/or up to five years in prison.

Voters also have the option of checking a box labeled “I want to keep voting by mail.” If they do so, then their names are placed into the vote by mail system, and they are sent a mail ballot for every election through the 2022 general election.

The school board is funding the election, which in 2016 cost about $19,000 and will likely be a little more this year. “We have quite a few more voters,” Riley said.

The school board did not cover the cost of postage for the balloting, so voters have to place a single 55-cent stamp when they mail it back.

If they want to save that expense, they can drop their ballots off any time, day or not, at drop boxes found at the main Apalachicola office as well as the Carrabelle annex.

“Just because you receive it in the mail doesn’t mean you’re required to vote it (by mail),” Riley said. “You can always change your mind and vote in person” during regular office hours.

She said the possibility of fraud is very tiny. “Once you have voted the system automatically updates the record,” Riley said. “There’s no way it will be recorded twice.”

The district has conducted a modest publicity effort, sending voters a postcard outlining their advocacy for passing the referendum.

It states that “the district’s objective is to continue to keep the existing capital outlay and ad valorem tax levy at its current level, which is a half-mill below the amount that could be levied.”

The postcard specifies that referendum funds “have been used for elementary art, band, aerospace programs, technology expansion, additional athletic programs, credit recovery, after-school activity buses, career and technical programs, and salaries and benefits for teachers and support staff.”

It goes on to say the referendum “allows the school district flexibility to use the funds to continue to preserve academic programs, to hire and retain highly qualified staff and to fund programs in the arts, athletics and student activities.”

While it is not listed on the postcard, the district has said, in a position paper shared by the finance office, that a failed referendum could mean cutting student programs and teachers, prompting the district to consider options for finding over $1.06 million per year in budget cuts in the 2020-21 budget.

Ballots are all due by at the elections office by Tuesday, June 23 at 7 p.m.

Those with questions are asked to call the elections office at 653-9520.

Raises granted teachers, administrators

After a series of negotiations that lasted into January, teachers, administrators and support staff all received pay increases retroactive to the start of the fiscal year last fall.

With performance pay mandated by the state, the school district divvied up a little more than $56,000 to its teacher, with two of them, rated highly effective, receiving an additional $1,544 each, and 26 of them, deemed effective, each getting $1,158.

In addition, 13 teachers who are grandfathered in under the former tenure rules, each received $1,157.

The new contract was approved this past spring by the school board as well as the Franklin County Teachers Association. The effectiveness designations are based on evaluations provided at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

The school board recently approved performance pay, also mandated by the state, for the two top administrators Principal Michael Sneed and Assistant Principal Shelley Miedona, each received $1,158 raises, as each was deemed effective. The monies represented a split of about $2,700, minus salary and retirement, earmarked for these increases.

Support staff, as represented by the Franklin Educational Support Personnel Association, received an average 2.5 percent increase. In addition, the school board recently extended a similar pay hike to 24 staffers not covered under the bargaining agreement.