Saturday, September 22, 2018

School safety mandates might delay other budget priorities, Pasco County School Board members say

Enhancing school safety remains a top priority for the Pasco County School Board.

None of its elementary schools have resource officers, for instance, and many have open access from several entry points.

But the cost of meeting these needs, now heightened in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting in February, could hinder the board's desire to accomplish other things.

"It is going to be an incredibly tight year," superintendent Kurt Browning told the board Tuesday during a budget workshop.

Chief finance officer Olga Swinson said she anticipated a net added increase in revenue of about $12 million for 2018-19, based on preliminary information from the Legislature. Of that amount, she said, much will be "restricted" to the safe school uses that lawmakers are debating.

Just the expense of increasing the number of resource officers, which already cost the district more than $1 million that the Sheriff's Office does not cover, could prove astronomical, officials noted. To equip and pay one new officer approaches $150,000.

The Legislature's direction is to not allow districts to keep their tax rates flat, to take advantage of rising property values. As a result, board members said, they are unlikely to be able to tackle their top additional priorities.

Board member Allen Altman said he feared the district would have "little wiggle room to expand academic opportunities for students, because we're getting other mandates from the state."

Other items that could go by the wayside included all board members' desires to increase teacher pay, add guidance counselors to school staffs and expanding prekindergarten programs.

Also on board member wish lists were preparing for an east-county technical high school, offering STEM programs to younger students and bolstering struggling career academies.

"My other big thing was kind of the reverse," chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. "I want to make sure we keep the fund balance. We saw during the hurricane the importance of keeping that fund balance level."

The board routinely maintains reserves of about 5 percent.

Browning said his staff will continue to review and refine its budget projections. He added that they also intend to work up proposals that include the board's priorities, in case they can be afforded.

To save some money, he said, the district will consider freezing both hiring and purchasing after spring break, as it has done in the past.

"I don't want us to leave here today thinking all is doom and gloom," Browning said. "This board has been in worse places before."

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