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Hernando school officials to lay out sales tax referendum plans

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District has long struggled with how it will pay for its growing maintenance needs and the huge cost of upgrading technology.

The numbers are bleak.

Over the next five years, the district forecasts it will need about $74 million for maintenance work. In the next 10, officials say, they will need about $62 million for technology.

A key component to funding these needs, they say, is renewing a half-cent sales tax.

On Tuesday, School Board members are expected to take a major step toward putting the 10-year sales tax referendum on the November election ballot.

"It's significant for us," said Hernando superintendent Lori Romano.

Romano said the sales tax would bring in between $6.5 million and $8 million per year.

During an afternoon workshop, board members will discuss a resolution that calls for a 10-year sales tax to fund "fixed capital improvements to school facilities and to provide for technology implementation within the School District."

The resolution is scheduled to be voted on at Tuesday night's School Board meeting. It would then be sent to the Hernando County Commission, which must give final approval for the referendum to be placed on the ballot.

At Tuesday's workshop, district staffers will give their first formal presentation on the sales tax. Dubbed "Investing in Education," the presentation will lay out the district's needs, how it plans to use the money and how it has spent sales tax dollars in the past.

"We intend to use the presentation to go out to the community for town hall and homeowner meetings," said Roland "Bo" Bavota, the district's facilities director, who is leading the effort. "We will be presenting it to voters."

In it, the district stresses that the overall sales tax in the county would remain at 6.5 percent, that the rate is lower than it is in surrounding counties and that visitors and nonresidents would contribute.

They also will show exactly how the district has used sales tax dollars in the past, including one levy that helped pay for the construction of Nature Coast Technical High School and the current half-cent levy, which has gone for new construction, additions and debt payment. That tax expires this year.

The money generated by the renewed sales tax would be used for the district's technology replacement plan and its one-to-one initiative, which aims to provide a computer tablet for every student within three years. District officials say this will help them meet the state requirement for computer-based testing, provide virtual classrooms and help prepare students for employment in a global society.

"(We're) looking at bringing our students into the 21st century," Bavota said. "The tablet program benefits every child in the entire district."

Romano agreed.

"You're opening up a world to them and giving them a level playing ground — the ability to compete," she said. "You're creating equity."

Revenue from the sales tax also would be used to address the district's facility needs, some of which have recently been thrust into the spotlight.

In recent weeks, the district has focused attention on Westside Elementary School and a leaking roof that is expected to cost millions to replace. The project could displace students for a year. And if it proves too costly, the Spring Hill school could be closed.

"We need the half-cent sales tax," Bavota said. "We have a very, very big amount of needs."

Over the past several years, the district has been forced to defer significant maintenance needs.

Sean Arnold, the district's maintenance manager, says a district of Hernando's size should be spending about $8 million a year to maintain its buildings. He said his department spends closer to $2 million. His budget has shrunk every year since he took over in 2009.

State funds for capital needs have been nonexistent. Educational impact fees, which are a one-time levy on new construction, haven't been collected in several years, and the County Commission, at the urging of the home-building industry, recently declined to reinstate them.

The absence of impact fees is a major issue for Bavota.

Over the first four months of this year, Hernando has issued 98 building permits. At the full impact fee rate of $7,000, that translates into roughly $700,000 the district has missed out on, he said.

"We continue to bleed by not getting impact fees," he said.

District officials say that makes passage of the sales tax referendum all the more important.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Hernando school officials to lay out sales tax referendum plans 05/02/14 [Last modified: Saturday, May 3, 2014 8:40pm]
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