Hernando schools budget may lower taxes for homeowners

BROOKSVILLE — Homeowners may catch a break under the tentative budget and education tax rate for next year approved Tuesday by the Hernando County School Board.

But county children may be the losers in that equation, board members said, as they unanimously approved a tentative budget of $419.9-million, down 6.4 percent from last year.

For the owner of a house valued at $200,000 who takes the $25,000 homestead exemption, that budget translates into an education property tax of $1,361.33, or $50.05 less than last year's bill.

That's an overall millage rate of 7.779, with a mill representing $1 for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value. It does not include taxes levied by the county.

The problem? Even though the 23,000-student district is expecting at least 364 more children this fall, the economic slowdown means less state funding for schools, said finance director Deborah Bruggink.

Legislators have warned the district to expect more state funding cuts of $2-million or more in November. And if voters approve the Amendment 5 tax relief measure on the ballot that month, the district would need to trim about $30-million from its budget, officials said.

"Every time the state says they're going to hold the schools harmless (from tax cuts), they don't," said Chairwoman Sandra Nicholson. "A lot of people say cut, cut, cut, but we have more and more students. We have to provide for our students, and it's not an easy task."

Two board members, Dianne Bonfield and Jim Malcolm, were absent from Tuesday's meeting.

Due to the uncertainties of how many children will actually show up when school begins Aug. 18, the district has essentially built a zero-growth budget and will add staff if necessary this fall, Bruggink said.

Already this summer, the district has trimmed some 54 teaching positions and 28 staff jobs, largely through attrition.

On Tuesday, superintendent Wayne Alexander told the board he would personally assume responsibility for overseeing facilities and maintenance, and distribute other administrative jobs among his two executive directors. That will save around $200,000 originally earmarked for new administrators, he said.

"We're a district that continues to grow, yet we continue to decrease our support staff," Alexander said. "At some point we will reach a breaking point. People are taking on more and more responsibility."

The district's capital budget for school construction and maintenance projects has taken a particularly tough hit. Last year's $16-million contribution from the state Classrooms for Kids program has dropped to zero, and the overall $213.6-million capital budget will be 12 percent smaller than it was last year, Bruggink said.

Even without that help, the district is moving ahead on plans to build and open a new high school and K-8 complex on U.S. 19 north of Hexam Road by 2010. Facilities director Roland Bavota said he planned to remind contractors of the district's policy to use local workers and materials on those projects whenever possible, in order to stimulate the local economy.

By all accounts, those buildings will be necessary if student enrollment continues to grow. The county's latest school hasn't even opened yet, but principal Dominick Ferello said Explorer-K-8 in Spring Hill is seeing larger numbers of new students than anyone expected.

"I can tell you they're coming in six and seven at a time to register, so it looks like we'll be quite full," he said.

A final public hearing and vote on the school district budget and tax rate for the 2008-09 school year will be held Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. in the School Board meeting room at 919 North Broad St.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando schools budget may lower taxes for homeowners 07/30/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 1:32pm]

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