Facing steep budget cuts and rising enrollment, many of Florida's community colleges are rallying behind an amendment on Tuesday's ballot that would allow counties to propose a sales tax increase to help the colleges raise funds.
Amendment 8 is not itself a tax increase; rather, it would authorize counties whose community colleges are seeking additional funds to submit a sales tax referendum to voters. If approved, the tax would last five years.
The measure, which requires 60 percent approval to pass, has drawn support from community colleges feeling the squeeze of a $116.4 million reduction in state funding this school year. At the same time, more students are enrolling in community colleges as the economy continues to worsen.
"Last year was bad, next year is not going to be any better," said Roberto Martinez, chairman of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission's Governmental Services Committee and a member of the state Board of Education. "It might even be worse. I feel there is an urgent need to make sure funding is adequate across all levels of our educational needs."
Supporters of Amendment 8 say Florida's diverse communities should have the right to individually support their local colleges. The measure's few opponents argue it could create educational disparities between schools that do and don't pass the tax.
"That would definitely put smaller, rural schools at a disadvantage," said John Grosskopf, interim president of North Florida Community College.North Florida serves students in six counties, several of which are among the state's poorest. The institution lost more than a half-million dollars in state funding this school year.
Overall, however, the amendment has received broad support. It was resoundingly approved by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission and the Florida Association of Community College's board of directors, whose members represent an array of districts.
According to the Department of Labor, more than two-thirds of all new jobs require some post-secondary education, and as Florida's universities become more selective and families struggle to meet their basic needs, many are turning to the more affordable route: community college.
Allen Bense, chairman of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, said the group felt Florida voters would be unlikely to support a property tax, proposing the sales tax provision instead.
Florida's community colleges are largely funded through the state's general revenue and lottery proceeds. The remaining balance is filled through student tuition and fees.