BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board is nearing the end of one of the most painful budget seasons in recent memory.
The board, during the first of two public hearings, gave tentative approval Thursday evening to a $244 million budget for 2011-12. The total revenue of $186.19 million is a decrease of $26.7 million, or 12.5 percent, from last year.
The district has been hit hard by plummeting property values, a cut in state funding and a loss of federal stimulus dollars. Voters also resoundingly defeated a referendum last November that would have allowed the board to slightly increase the school tax rate to bring in an additional $2 million.
Board members made some tough decisions to bridge what until recently was a roughly $11 million shortfall. They pared back bus service, approved fees to participate in sports and other activities, and sent non-reappointment letters to more than 100 first-year teachers. That was after school principals cut 10 percent of their staffing allocations at superintendent Bryan Blavatt's direction.
The district was able to close the last portion of the gap with help from unspent funds for fuel and vacant positions, chief financial officer Desiree Henegar told the board.
Still, "Without those cuts, we would not have been able to bring to you a balanced budget today," Henegar said.
Nearly 94 percent of the $165 million general fund goes to the costs of running schools and programs, Henegar noted, while about 3.5 percent is for district-level administration.
The total school tax rate will increase by 0.091 mills, to 7.508 mills. The increase is in the so-called required local effort portion of the rate, which is set by the state.
A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of property value, so a $125,000 property with a $25,000 homestead exemption would receive a school tax bill of $750.80, or $9.10 more than last year. Since property values plummeted by about 10 percent this year, however, many property owners won't actually be paying more in school taxes.
Henegar noted that the tax rate is still 9.7 percent less than the rollback rate, or the rate that would have brought in the same amount of revenue as last year.
The estimated ending general fund reserve is $4.59 million, but only about $2.8 million of that is unassigned. That's a dangerously small rainy day fund to cover expenses that could pop up later in the year, Henegar said. Among the concerns: The state requires the district to budget 96 percent of the tax roll, but last year the district only collected 93 percent.
"If that holds true this year, we're not going to collect the revenue we've budgeted for," Henegar said.
Still, Hernando made it through the storm in a lot better shape than other districts that faced mass layoffs. So far, Hernando's human resources staff has found full-time teaching positions for all but about 14 of the 115 teachers who were not reappointed.
Board member Cynthia Moore urged the community to support the schools, given the lack of resources, even if it's just a donation of basic school supplies.
"We need everybody's help with this budget so we can make it go and flow evenly," Moore said.
Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.