ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County voters have voted to renew the county's one-mill property tax, which currently equates to about $20 per month for the average homeowner. 

What You Need To Know

  • Revenue from the tax provides OCPS with 9.7% of its total operating budget

  • Among Florida’s five largest school districts, OCPS students participate in arts programs at the highest rate

  • Last school year, about 10 percent of Florida teachers lacked certifications appropriate to their field

Revenue from the tax provides Orange County Public Schools with 9.7% of its total operating budget, according to Scott Howat, the district’s chief communications officer. That includes about $86 million that went directly toward 1,165 teaching positions last school year. 

If voters chose not to renew the special property tax at its current one-mill rate, stakes for the district could have been high: “We’d have to make some hard decisions as to which things would be on the table, possibly, for being cut,” Howat said.

Arts and athletics programs would be among those expenses potentially on the chopping block. Last year, nearly $55 million from the one-mill tax went toward funding arts programs – including art, dance, drama and music teachers, according to OCPS.

“If this community values our students participating in the arts and becoming part of the great arts community that we have here in Orlando, we want to start them young, and make sure they’re exposed to visual and performing arts,” Howat said. “And that’s what we do.”

Among Florida’s five largest school districts, OCPS students take part in arts programs at the highest rate, Howat said. 

Teacher tension

Since 2010, when it first began, Orange County’s one-mill tax has helped keep teacher positions, Howat said, but an ongoing teacher shortage has prompted the district to shift focus, to motivating teachers who are already employed with the district to remain.

“Rather than focusing on the retention of positions, we’re going to focus on retaining teachers: by preventing them from leaving if they have experience,” Howat said.

Since voters renewed the one-mill tax this year, the district hopes to work with the teachers’ union to leverage some of those funds to supplement experienced teachers’ salaries.

“That type of a salary supplement would help us maybe keep some additional teachers that would [otherwise] consider leaving, because they’re not being recognized, maybe, for their experience,” Howat said. “And so doing that helps us to possibly retain some teachers in the longer term.”

By law, Florida’s board of education must identify critical teacher shortage areas each year. For this current school year, English teachers are most in need – but the state’s lacking teachers in other areas, too, including ESE (Exceptional Student Education), reading and math.

OCPS English teacher Andrea Klear said she knows many colleagues either leaving the profession, or taking on extra jobs to make ends meet. Florida teachers earn the second-lowest salaries on average, beating out only Mississippi, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“I’m not saying I don’t love teaching, but I understand why people are leaving,” Klear said. “The expectations [increase] every year, more and more, since I started.”

But teacher compensation hasn’t kept pace, Klear said. She became a teacher thirteen years ago, she says, chasing her two biggest passions: learning and kids.

“I’ve really, really loved it,” Klear said. But now she’s considering whether she’ll join the leagues of teachers leaving the classroom, in search of better pay and working conditions.

“Ideally I don’t want to, but I just feel like life is short, so if it’s really just too much, especially not being respected, not really being paid, it just becomes harder and harder,” said Klear, who’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in instructional design.

This school year, OCPS teachers returned to an average 6% raise, Howat said, thanks to a newly-ratified agreement between the district and the Orange County Teacher Association. But Klear says that the raise didn’t keep up with inflation. 

The district’s starting salary for brand-new teachers is now $48,400, Howat said. Workers need to earn $54,870 a year in order to afford a decent, two-bedroom rental home in Florida, according to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“If you want quality, you have to pay quality. You have to pay a living wage,” said Klear, who says she’s grateful she bought her home when she did, nearly ten years ago. 

Klear added she’s not fully confident keeping the county’s one-mill tax would actually help teachers like her.

“I just feel like they want the money to use it in the way that they want to use it, but I just don’t think it’s gonna go towards salary,” she said.

Thinking long-term

Last school year, about 10 percent of Florida teachers lacked certifications appropriate to their field, according to a Florida TaxWatch report released this month.

The group’s president and CEO Dominic M. Calabro says it’s crucial to increase pay rates for highly-qualified teachers – and special property taxes, like the one-mill, are one way of doing that.

“We have thousands of teachers that we need throughout the state of Florida, so paying teachers a more competitive compensation is critical in that regard,” Calabro said.

But he also sees a downside to special property taxes like these: since they must be renewed every four years, they make a relatively short-term impact.

“You’re making a commitment, if you will, on a recurring basis,” Calabro said. “People have retirements, they have healthcare benefits that will far extend beyond the four years. But the revenue source associated with it is limited.”

Calabro said historically, Floridians have been “very, very generous” with their vote on taxes like the one-mill – especially when they’re confident the revenues will be used to improve educational outcomes. But he said the current economic moment, marked by record-high inflation, could potentially make voters think differently.

Calabro added the state needs to think big-picture when it comes to recruiting – and retaining – high-quality teachers. 

“We’ve got to look long-term. Not just fill the teachers of today and tomorrow,” Calabro said. “We’ve got to look at really making teaching an esteemed profession. So it’s not just compensation, it’s giving the teachers the authority and the respect to govern their classroom, working very hand in hand with outstanding principals.”