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Hernando schools see budget, food cutbacks

BROOKSVILLE — Bread is becoming a luxury item.

That's the new reality beginning next fall for the Hernando County schools, as officials in all departments cinch their belts for a tough budget year.

Even with projections for more than 300 extra students next fall, the district is planning to reduce the operating budget from its current $172-million to $169.9-million as a result of state and federal cutbacks, said finance director Deborah Bruggink.

Food services are self-sustaining and don't draw from the schools budget. But district kitchens are nevertheless planning to scrimp on bread and substitute cheaper potatoes in response to rising commodity prices, said food and nutrition director Lori Drenth.

With board approval, the price of a la carte items may rise — a carton of milk up from 40 to 45 cents, a hamburger up 5 percent to $1.79.

"One thing we have done at breakfast — this is painful; no parents want to hear this — we are taking fresh fruit off the menu at breakfast," she added. "They can still get juice."

Then there's the soaring cost of gas for the school buses.

"Last year we built our budget on $2.75 a gallon — shame on us — for 600,000 gallons (of fuel)," said transportation director Linda Smith. "Next year it will be $4 gallon and 700,000 gallons."

Much of the planned extra gas is needed for program expansions, like the new Explorer K-8 school opening in Spring Hill. Its neighborhood is so densely populated that few of its 2,100 students qualify for state transportation funds, but the School Board has said they deserve a safe bus trip just the same. Other programs, like the proposed high school career academies, could also bring extra bus trips.

Those new programs are putting extra weight on an already strained financial picture.

The district expects less per-student funding from the state next year, even though enrollment is projected to grow.

"And there may be cuts to come from the state, with (tax revenues) continuing to decline," Bruggink said. "What we're hearing is we may have a cut this fall on top of everything else."

It's not just state funding that's headed south. Medicaid payments for some programs, adult education revenues, interest earned from investments — all of those revenue sources and many others are dropping, Bruggink said.

At a workshop Tuesday, the School Board will be asked to pay $750,000 in cash toward a $1.5-million purchase of land in the Southern Hills development for future construction of a new school. Even though the capital budget is expected to drop by $28-million next year, officials see it as a good deal.

The board will also hear proposals Tuesday to develop a new electronic technology program at Eastside Elementary, and mass communications offerings at Moton Elementary, Parrott Middle and Hernando High schools. The price tag: nearly $2-million over five years.

"Right now they're all listed as unbudgeted; there isn't the money right now to do them," Bruggink said. "I don't think you're going to be able to do them all."

And those programs are cheap compared to salaries for teachers and staff, which make up the lion's share of the budget. Teachers who earned pay increases of 6 percent this year, plus the full cost of a health insurance premium increase, may see far less next year, Bruggink said.

"My gut reaction is you can't give more than step (increases)," she said, referring to contractual annual seniority increases averaging about 1.5 percent. "And I have some concerns whether you can even cover step right now."

Even Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, admits it will be tough.

But he encouraged the district to focus its efforts on streamlining operations to save money, and to continue boosting Hernando teachers' relatively low standing compared to what other districts pay.

The board is expected to begin reviewing the 2008-09 budget on June 3.

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

Hernando schools see budget, food cutbacks 05/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 2:32pm]

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