BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District's budget picture is a lot less grim than officials feared.
Chief financial officer Desiree Henegar told School Board members last month that the total deficit could be some $5.8 million. That included $2.7 million to balance the budget and $3.1 million to bring the general fund reserves up to state-mandated levels.
On Thursday, Henegar said the budget will be in the black, and there will be enough money to reach that fund reserve mandate, too.
It's a surprising — and rare — bit of good financial news for a school district that just weeks ago braced for tough decisions to get out of the red.
"I've been sleeping a lot better at night, I'll put it that way," Henegar said. "I definitely know we can build a balanced budget."
A balanced budget, superintendent Bryan Blavatt added, "without any draconian cuts. I'm feeling that we're in pretty good shape."
Savings this current year is allowing the district to carry forward a lot more money than expected, Henegar said. She declined to provide a specific figure, saying that she has yet to close out the current budget year. But leaving vacant positions unfilled meant a lot of saving in personnel costs, she said.
"Everything we've done in '09-'10 has helped out for '10-'11," she said.
Some 50 instructional and noninstructional positions that had been budgeted for remained empty this year, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services.
Schools deserve much credit for getting creative with class schedules, asking teachers to take on additional duties to stave off the need for new hires. Schools also pinched pennies to save in their respective discretionary budgets, Martin said. Those unspent dollars go back to the general fund.
"You start pulling that in from 23 schools, that's a good chunk of money," she said.
"We have made a lot of sacrifices" as a district, Martin said. "It makes you feel good because you start to see that's paying off a little bit."
The proposed budget includes about $4 million to hire roughly 78 additional teachers to help the district meet stricter class size requirements that take effect in August.
Martin warned that is an estimate that will be updated when new enrollment figures are available. Voters could elect to ease the requirements through a referendum in November, but districts must meet the deadline to avoid financial penalties.
The budget does not include the additional $2.2 million in revenue the district would garner if the School Board approved a tax rate increase of 0.25 for every $1,000 of property value.
A majority of the board has refused to levy the so-called critical needs quarter mill property tax increase. The brighter budget picture takes some of the pressure off board members, three of whom are up for re-election this year.
The truth-in-millage notice mailed to taxpayers next month will include the quarter mill, though, Blavatt noted. That way, the board has the option to change its mind by the final budget hearing on Sept. 7. The first hearing is 6 p.m. July 27 at the district headquarters in Brooksville.
Board members have been more amenable to putting the critical needs millage on the November ballot so voters can decide whether the district can levy it in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
Chairman Pat Fagan got the better budget news in broad brush strokes during a meeting with Blavatt on Thursday morning.
"The first thing that came into my mind is for a number of months we've been told how bad how things look," he said. "All I can say is, it's a wonderful day."
Henegar makes no apologies for her conservative financial assessments.
"I had to give (board members) the worst-case scenario," she said. "I'd rather say things are better than say it's worse than I thought."
She also noted concern about the next budget year, when there will be no more stimulus dollars to tap and the additional operating expense of Weeki Wachee High School and the new K-8 next door slated to open in fall 2011. The district also expects to be hit soon with a health insurance premium hike.
Blavatt, still just a few months into the job, said the district can start doing a better job of looking even further into the future, tapping parents, teachers and even students for ways to be more efficient without allowing the quality of education suffer.
"I don't want to be reactionary anymore," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.