Hernando County School Board members on Tuesday voted to join with the county to ask voters for a penny sales tax, a decision that comes with the potential for benefit and risk.
The measure passed by a 3-2 vote Tuesday night after county officials and business leaders persuaded board members to work with the county; the schools had originally planned to seek a continuation of the district's current half-cent sales tax, which expires this year.
District officials plan to spend their share of the tax on urgent school maintenance projects and on technology. County officials have released a list of big-ticket road improvements and more than a half-dozen other projects intended to benefit schools.
The central question before board members: Does the benefit of these additional county projects outweigh the risk of asking voters to approve a larger sales tax? A majority thought it does.
School Board members Matt Foreman, Cynthia Moore and John Sweeney supported the partnership with the county, which would share some of its revenue with the city of Brooksville. Board chairman Gus Guadagnino and School Board member Dianne Bonfield opposed the measure.
For roughly three hours at Tuesday afternoon's workshop, board members debated the merits of joining with the county versus going it alone.
But they weren't the only ones to weigh in on the debate.
To the surprise of many of those in attendance, superintendent Lori Romano also spoke against joining forces with the county, saying she felt the "timing was off."
"I think it's a risk for the School District," she said. "I think we're going to be in significantly dire straights if we don't get the half-cent sales tax."
She added later: "I'm not willing to recommend (joining forces) given the fact that I have to be fiscally responsible."
Foreman, who generally spoke positively about working with the county, first wanted a commitment from county officials that the School District projects would be completed in a timely manner and wouldn't change at a later date.
"One of the concerns is that this is a bait and switch," he said.
County Administrator Len Sossamon said it was the county's intention to move all of the projects on schedule and at the same time. He spoke of also creating a watchdog group to make sure the projects were completed.
Sweeney looked at the county's project list and the benefits the School District would realize if the county's half of the sales tax passed.
"I have to look at what's before us," he said. "There are projects … that could benefit the students and families in our school district. The county could have many other projects … but the fact that they are focusing a great portion of their effort to improve the school district and help us out — it's hard to just look the other way."
Bonfield spoke the most forcefully against the partnership, saying it was far too great a risk for a financially struggling district. She compared losing out on sales tax dollars to taking someone off life support.
"If we lose this half-cent sales tax, they're going to pull the plug," she said. "That's $7 million a year. This isn't dream world out there … this is our very existence. Our very existence. I can't gamble with that and I won't."
Guadagnino came out against working with the county because he said it would jeopardize the school's shot at the half-cent sales tax.
"Today's children need our support more than ever," he said.
George Gall, the district's chief financial officer, painted a grim picture when asked what would happen if the schools didn't continue to collect the sales tax.
In the next four years, he said, the district is expected to face about $154 million in unmet needs even if the sales tax passes.
Bonfield seized on that.
"I believe what we've just heard speaks for its self," she said. "It's very difficult to gamble for this half cent. Very difficult."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.