BROOKSVILLE — It took some scratching and clawing to get there, but the Hernando County School Board now has a balanced budget to review when it has its first public hearing Thursday.
And though the board had no hand in it, the school tax rate will increase slightly this year.
Board members made some tough decisions to bridge what until recently was a roughly $11 million shortfall in the 2011-12 budget. 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.
Even with those efforts, a roughly $1 million shortfall remained. Instead of facing more cuts, however, the district will get some help from savings during the budget year that ended June 30, chief financial officer Desiree Henegar said.
"We finished a lot better than anticipated," Henegar said.
Henegar late last week still was firming up the total savings and where they came from, but said the carryover money should be enough to close the gap. Among the helpful factors: The district saved salary and benefits expenses by not filling vacant positions, and fuel costs came in under budget.
The $186.19 million total tentative budget is a decrease of $26.7 million, or 12.5 percent, from last year.
The estimated ending general fund reserve is $4.59 million, but only about $2.8 million of that is unassigned.
It's precious little to cover expenses that could pop up later in the year, Henegar said. The state could further reduce per-student funding, for example, or the district could lose state dollars due to lower-than-projected student enrollment.
"I don't think we can afford to concede any of our already-established budget savings measures," Henegar said.
The total school tax rate will increase by .091 mills, to 7.508 mills. The increase is in the so-called required local effort portion of the school tax 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 see 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, most property owners won't actually be paying more in school taxes.
There is some more bright news for the district: Most of the first-year teachers who were cut will return after all.
The district sent non-reappointment letters to 115 teachers last month. The Hernando Classroom Teachers Association agreed to forgo the automatic salary increase built into the contract and give up two paid holidays, freeing up enough general fund dollars to save the jobs of 60 of those first-year teachers.
Another 33 teachers had been rehired to fill vacant critical positions as of late last week, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services. Two teachers resigned, leaving 20 teachers still without jobs.
"Our goal is to bring as many of those back as we possibly can," Martin said.
At least some of those teachers will probably wind up in long-term substitute positions for now, said HCTA president Joe Vitalo.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.