Half-cent tax revenue chips away at mountain of facility needs in Hernando schools

Evening traffic passes by the intersection of Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard as Jo Ann Hartge, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, left, instructional coach Melinda Barrett, and teacher Lucy Tucker, right, wave signs in 2015 in support of the half-cent sales tax for schools referendum. The measure passed by an overwhelming margin in November of that year and has since paid for about $21 million worth of projects in Hernando schools. BRENDAN FITTERER | Times
Evening traffic passes by the intersection of Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard as Jo Ann Hartge, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, left, instructional coach Melinda Barrett, and teacher Lucy Tucker, right, wave signs in 2015 in support of the half-cent sales tax for schools referendum. The measure passed by an overwhelming margin in November of that year and has since paid for about $21 million worth of projects in Hernando schools. BRENDAN FITTERER | Times
Published August 30 2018

BROOKSVILLE ó A new roof at Pinegrove Elementary School. An updated gymnasium at Challenger K-8. Patched leaks, new air conditioning systems and replaced flooring. The list of recent improvements at Hernando County schools goes on and on.

The district has routed more than $21 million in funding to school projects since 2015, when Hernando County voters agreed to a half-cent sales tax to spruce up school facilities. The total amount collected tops $26 million, finance records show. As promised, the district will use all of it to chip away at the long list of improvements needed in local schools.

"As I get it, I spend it," head of school facilities Erik van de Boogaard told the Tampa Bay Times. "Itís filling a huge hole ... If we didnít have it, we would be in dire straits."

Because of other school needs, he said, the district had to cut spending on building updates in recent years. Without the added revenue from the half-cent tax, many maintenance projects wouldnít be possible.

Many arenít, even now, so van de Boogaard learned to be creative about the timing and scope of jobs to ensure the funds stretch as far as possible, said Greg Laskoski. He serves on a half-cent oversight committee that school officials formed when they asked constituents to consider the tax.

"They try to get the biggest bang for the buck," Laskoski said, pointing out that while he voted for the tax, some on the committee didnít.

"This was not a committee that was set up to be a rubber stamp," he said. "We question the district at every turn."

The five-member team, which meets quarterly, works with the district to ensure the funds are spent only on capital improvements, as was promised to voters.

At a School Board meeting Tuesday, committee members presented a list of projects the tax revenue paid for. Laskoski cautioned that it covers only "a small slice" of whatís needed on Hernandoís campuses.

"The funding challenge is not going to disappear even with the increase in income," he told officials, noting that about 48 percent of the districtís costs are covered by local revenue.

Lori Sowers, a Brooksville accountant who also serves on the committee, said the same.

"We are consistently playing catch up," she said, adding that the district should lobby for more state funding in the upcoming Legislative session.

School Board members didnít discuss the list of projects, or how to secure further funding, but thanked the committee for its work. Chairman Mark Johnson invited those in attendance to consider joining the volunteer committee, which is adding two members.

About 60 percent of the half-cent funding has gone toward replacing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, said committee member and local accountant Bob Widmar.

Without the half-cent tax, Hernando could be in a situation similar to neighboring Hillsborough County, which is "under the gun" to fix faulty air-conditioning systems in multiple schools, he said.

The half-cent revenue canít pay for everything, but Hernando residents should be proud of what they have accomplished since funds began rolling into the district in 2016, Laskoski told the Times. The funding has addressed more than 400 projects, and some schools have seen more than $1 million in improvements, he said.

"When we hear that so many projects are moving forward ... itís very gratifying to know how this all began, and to see things come to fruition," Laskoski said. "Itís something the citizens should appreciate being a part of."

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.

MORE: View the list of projects here

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