BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District appears to have gained access to a pot of state money dedicated to Florida's smallest districts — money that district officials have long coveted but been ineligible to receive.
For the 2014-15 fiscal year, Hernando is slated to receive a bump of about $2 million for its general fund, a significant boon to a district struggling with large capital needs and unpaid debt. The district will also be eligible for the extra funding in future years, though the exact amount will fluctuate.
"It's huge for us, a huge win for the district," said superintendent Lori Romano.
For years, the state has set aside money for sparsely populated counties, recognizing that small school districts typically have proportionally greater costs.
For roughly two decades, the threshold for what defines a small district has been the same: 20,000 full-time students.
But that's set to change.
In the 2014-15 state budget, which passed both the House and Senate on Friday and awaits the governor's signature, the threshold for the so-called sparsity supplement was increased to 24,000 students. Hernando, which has just under 22,000 students, is no longer too large to receive the funding, as has been the case in recent years.
Hernando is the only district that will become eligible for the funding because of the change in the threshold.
The budget allocates roughly $48 million for the supplemental funding, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Romano credited Hernando's legislative delegation, particularly Sen. Wilton Simpson and Rep. Rob Schenck, for making the change.
"We couldn't have done it without Sen. Simpson and Rep. Schenck," she said.
She also credited Chris Doolin, a lobbyist with the Small School District Council Consortium, which the district recently joined.
Romano said that she and School Board member John Sweeney, the board's legislative liaison, have been working on trying to get the extra funding for several months, stressing the district's needs.
Schenck said the Hernando school district has been stuck in a "no man's land" for years and has struggled financially as a result.
"They were always down in the (state education) funding formula," he said. "This was the easiest way to help them out of that hole."
Schenck said he was able to get the change made in the budget by working directly through the Budget Committee chairman.
"I was able to leverage my position and long-term relationships to get this done," he said. "I was just happy to be in a position to be able to help them out."
In an e-mail, Sweeney said the extra funding will go a long way toward addressing the district's needs.
"If recent topics such as busing, and building repair, are any indication, it could not have arrived at a better time," he said.
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.