Higher reserves should keep Hernando schools off watch list

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County school district's financial picture for 2012-13 is stronger than it first appeared, with enough now in reserve to keep the district off a state watch list.

But district officials are hardly excited.

The district's reserves have grown by more than $2.5 million, thanks in part to lower salary expenditures and fuel costs, since the 2012-13 budget was first presented more than a month ago, said chief financial officer Desiree Henegar. The reserve fund has increased from $2.95 million to $5.5 million, or from 2.06 percent of estimated general fund revenues to 3.81 percent.

"It is a good thing," said superintendent Bryan Blavatt.

Districts that allow their reserve fund to fall below 3 percent are placed on the state watch list. And if a district falls below 2 percent, the state has the right to come in and start telling it how to make cuts, Blavatt said.

The district was on the watch list last year.

This year's budget will be submitted to the state after the final public hearing on Sept. 18. Until then, it's a moving target, Henegar said.

The larger reserve doesn't mean the district is in great shape, Blavatt said.

"We're scrimping and saving and cutting just to maintain what the state says is an adequate reserve," he said. "It doesn't mean we're just oozing with money."

Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo, who negotiates teacher salaries with the district, sees it a little differently.

The district has even more reserve dollars than it appears, Vitalo said.

The district builds a significant safety net by placing reserve money in line items, he said. One place: unfilled positions. The district allocates money for the positions, then rolls the money over when the year is over, he said.

Vitalo said the district ended the past two years with double-digit reserves.

"You cannot cry poverty when you're rolling $14 million to the next year's budget," he said.

To more accurately depict what's happening with district finances, he believes the money should be placed in the reserve fund and not in line items.

But Henegar said the current reserve doesn't inspire much confidence.

"It is slightly better," she said. "But I am not in any way, shape or form thrilled with our fund balance."

There are several reasons for that.

Although the amount in reserves is roughly $5.5 million, not all of that money is truly available to the district, she said. For example, $1.5 million can only be used for future health care expenses.

She said the real fund balance is closer to $3.7 million, a reserve fund of roughly 2.58 percent.

That's the amount of money that would be available to cover any loss in revenue or increase in spending.

"In my professional opinion, it's going to be difficult to cover if we lose money like we did last year," Henegar said.

The district lost roughly $1.2 million in tax revenue last year because of a low collection rate and another $3 million because of state funding reductions, thanks in part to a loss of students, she said. Hernando's collection rate is low again this year, she said, and early enrollment numbers are below staff projections.

"It's going to be hard to weather any kind of financial storm that comes our way," she said.

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

Higher reserves should keep Hernando schools off watch list 09/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 8:04pm]

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