BROOKSVILLE — Dollars are scarce this summer as the Hernando County School Board grapples with a $2-million budget shortfall. But some things are untouchable.
Like the science fair.
Board members reacted with surprise Thursday to news that the all-county elementary science fair had slipped out of the district's latest budget proposal. In a general fund projected at nearly $170-million for next year, the fair would set Hernando County schools back a mere $2,400.
And a majority said they'd vote to put the money back.
"I think it's very important to our children," said board member Pat Fagan. "It's been a success in the past, and I expect it to be a success in the future. We need to find the money somewhere else."
District officials said schools had requested $19,150 to pay for buses, awards and stipends for fair coordinators at the elementary, middle and high school levels. The secondary programs are safe, but the $2,400 elementary portion isn't in the budget proposal scheduled to be discussed at a Tuesday board workshop.
"That's something we don't want to cut," said member Dianne Bonfield.
Children put extra work into the fair trying to win at the district level and go on to the state competition, she added. "They do it with the hope of winning or getting recognition. How can we have someone go to the state championship if we don't have a district competition?"
Member Jim Malcolm said the district had made a name for itself statewide by holding such events in every school, right down to the early elementary grades. Parents and local business leaders often help to judge the competitions and leave excited about the children's progress in science.
"I've been told we have more participation per capita than any other district in the state," he said. "If you start them early, you can't help but spawn an interest. $2,400? You've got to be kidding."
In an interview Thursday, superintendent Wayne Alexander initially described the move as a tentative cut that might be necessary to balance the district budget.
"It's not like you've totally wiped out science fairs at the elementary level," he said, describing the school-based fairs that would continue. "We're taking a look at each and every component and each and every dollar."
But when he learned how much it would cost to keep those demonstrations of spewing volcanoes and homemade robots going for another year, he said it was "highly likely" the fair would be reinstated in the budget.
"It's small change for a big bang," Alexander said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.