Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Education

DeWitt: Need for additional dollars continues for Hernando County schools

You voters out there who passed the half-cent school sales tax last year might have figured you were done.

You were willing to dig into your pockets for kids and classrooms. You did your part to ensure Hernando County has an adequately funded, well-functioning school system.

Well, sorry, it wasn't enough. The time will soon come to do more, to dig deeper.

That was the basic message during an informal School Board meeting last week, the time when, as Chairman Matt Foreman said, the board has some of its most "spirited discussions."

Sure enough, talk quickly turned to a subject that presumably had been put to bed for a few years — a referendum for a new tax.

"Two mills for two years," member Mark Johnson said.

Though he didn't say so, it was a glance back at a previous tax referendum, the one that didn't pass — 2014's Penny for Projects. The school district's share of that money, about $85 million over 10 years, had been earmarked for technology, most of it, memorably and disastrously, for computerized tablets.

That was the deluxe solution to state mandates regarding technology improvements, said Jason Chase, the district's supervisor of technology and information services. But the mandates still exist, and the district still has to figure out how to meet them.

It won't cost $85 million, Chase said, but it will cost plenty.

And regardless of the state's requirements, the need for upgrades is obvious to anyone who has paid a visit to a classroom in the district. It's like a trip back to the dial-up era; the laptops are that old, the bandwidth that bottlenecked, the waits for pages to load that long.

Then there's a software system called TERMS, which dates back to the 1980s, Chase said. It displays a shade of green on the screen that might make you nostalgic for high school computer lab if you didn't know it was the administrative workhorse of the district, the primary tool for managing enrollment numbers, grades and finances.

Technology isn't the only big, looming expense, Johnson said. There's also buses.

The district's newest buses are now 5 years old, said Ralph Leath, the district's assistant transportation director. And, he said, 44 of the district's 165 buses have accumulated more than 200,000 miles, the recommended maximum lifespan.

The district needs to, at the very least, invest $1 million per year, which would buy about 10 replacement buses, Leath said. For the next budget year, he plans to ask for 20, which would cost about $2 million.

There's also the $20,000 raise in superintendent Lori Romano's salary for next year, which may not be significant in its own right, but raises the pay expectations for all of the district's teachers and administrators.

Who, by the way, need to be better paid if the district — which has a long-term shortage of up-and-coming administrators — wants to retain quality principals and assistant principals, Foreman said at the workshop.

It's another significant expense that the district has no firm plans to meet, other than hoping the state kicks in more money for education and that property values continue to rise.

(Don't even mention the paltry impact fees on new construction that are due to kick in March 1. Their use is limited to expanding school space, and the amount so low that every new home is another financial burden on the district.)

Foreman, by the way, said he doesn't support Johnson's proposal for a new tax and doubted other board members would either.

So, maybe they won't be doing that. But in the long term, they — and we — will have to do something.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

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