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Hernando school officials cautious on budget

BROOKSVILLE — For months, Hernando school officials considered $16 million to be the doomsday number.

That's how much superintendent Wayne Alexander urged the School Board to cut from next year's budget based on projections of shortfalls in state education funding.

Now, the state budget is on its way to Gov. Charlie Crist, and the Legislature appears to have kept its promise to minimize cuts to education. Also, Hernando is in line to receive nearly $7.6 million in stabilization funds from the federal government in each of the next two years.

But officials agree the district will still have millions of dollars less next year because of a shrinking student population, contracting tax rolls and the state's tendency to cut money over the course of the school year.

"We're still down in the weeds," Desiree Henegar, the district's chief financial officer, said Wednesday.

How deep in the weeds is still unclear. But as she begins to formulate a budget, she has a mantra: "I think we should be cautious, we should be prudent, we should hope for the best and expect and plan for the worst."

There are several reasons for the abundance of caution, she said.

The state is projecting about 500 fewer enrolled students in Hernando next year, bringing the student population to about 22,028.

School officials also are preparing for as much as a 10 percent drop in taxable property values.

Those two factors alone could mean a roughly $2.4 million hit to the district, Henegar said.

The state practice tweaks education funding levels over the course of the school year based on revised revenue estimates. The numbers in recent years have gone down, not up, Henegar said.

"You look at that historically, and we've been cut, we've been cut, we've been cut," she said.

While the stabilization money is a big help, it's not a panacea, either, she said. The money comes with strings that officials are still trying to untangle. It can be used to pay for some staff positions, but the district has to be prepared to fund those jobs with its own money when 2012 rolls around.

The district's operating budget for this year of $159 million had already been pared down by $10 million. Henegar would like to bolster the reserve fund, a cushion that could help fund positions when the stabilization funds run out.

But there are other rising costs to consider.

The School Board approved a salary step plan for teachers. And a new state law requires districts to contribute more to employees' retirement funds.

The School Board has rejected the majority of Alexander's cost-saving measures and approved only about $1 million worth. The board last month reversed its decision to approve a staffing plan that would have reduced teacher and support positions and raised average class sizes by two or three students at every level. Alexander has estimated a savings of about $12 million.

Alexander said Wednesday the board has made clear its decision to wait to make painful reductions throughout the year as they become necessary. "I continue to hope we won't have to do that, but we have to have a balanced budget," he said.

While he acknowledges the budget situation is no cause for rejoicing, Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo says the numbers vindicate the union's stance since February: $16 million was too drastic.

"We've always anticipated a negative number, but never anything close to double digits," Vitalo said.

The School Board's first budget workshop is June 2.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando school officials cautious on budget 05/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 14, 2009 9:08am]
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