BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County schools took a hard financial hit this week, and it didn't even come from Tallahassee.
Deborah Bruggink, finance director for the 23,000-student district, said Tuesday she was leaving for a new job in Alabama to be closer to family. Her last day will be Jan. 16.
Officials let out a collective groan of dismay.
"Oh my gosh," said Sandra Nicholson, chairwoman of the School Board. "In all my experience, with all of the finance directors I have worked with, she is by far the most knowledgeable, the most reliable. I am very upset to see her go."
Veteran accounting supervisor Denise Coit will take over the department on an interim basis. And the district will immediately launch a national search to fill Bruggink's shoes, said superintendent Wayne Alexander.
"She's an outstanding one, she knows her stuff," he added. "We're looking at 101 things Debbie has been doing. She has been a tremendous resource to me."
Bruggink came to the district in February 2005, and drew quick praise as a straight-talking administrator and a tough negotiator during contract talks. While the teachers union occasionally suggested her budget predictions were overly dire, a union official had nothing but praise Tuesday for her performance.
"That's a huge loss," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "Debbie really helped us understand the budgeting situation from the state, how it works."
He said Bruggink played a key role in the negotiations this year that brought teachers and staff a raise of nearly 4 percent in salary and health benefits.
"We didn't have the same (negotiating) conflict we had in the past," he added. "Because we understood each other."
But Bruggink's predictions of tight money have come true, as the district grapples with the prospect of a new round of state funding cuts. What started as a $3-million shortfall in the budget could grow to $6-million by spring, she said.
Bruggink pointed with satisfaction to the district's success last year in raising its reserve funds above the 2.5 percent level, avoiding a black mark in the annual state audit.
But she acknowledged that the district could be forced to cut programs, lay off staff or dip well below that recommended reserve level if state cuts continue past this year. She said the district could reduce some costs in the maintenance, transportation and utility budgets.
"Those kinds of things are going to help save people's positions for the current year," Bruggink said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.