Saturday, December 16, 2017
Education

Early $1.2B Pinellas schools budget includes new programs

LARGO — The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday tentatively approved a $1.2 billion budget that includes two new elementary magnets, new middle school programs and the rebuilding of Largo High School.

Final budget approval will come in September.

The budget for the 2014-15 school year includes about $25 million more from the state for operating expenses. The $878.8 million operating budget pays for teacher salaries and day-to-day costs. Some of the additional dollars will be needed to pay for state-mandated expenses, such as an extra hour of reading at more than a dozen low-performing schools.

Kevin Smith, district CFO, said district officials don't have a firm cost yet for the extra reading. The district is "still looking at options there," he said.

The tentative budget also includes a slightly lower property tax rate for homeowners. The rate is $7.84 per $1,000 of taxable value, compared to $8.06 last year.

The owner of a house valued at $200,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay about $1,372 under the new rate, about $38 less than last year. School taxes aren't subject to the full $50,000 in the state's homestead exemption.

Despite the lower rate, some homeowners could still get an increase in their taxes because of an increase in property values.

The School Board doesn't set most of its property tax rate; the state does.

Major projects in the budget include the construction of Largo High, which is being rebuilt. The $277.4 million capital budget includes about $35 million for that work, although the final cost is expected to be higher. The school is being rebuilt in phases.

New schools and academic programs are expected to draw students, possibly bringing some into the public school system from private schools. The district is reopening Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementary schools as technology magnets. Much of the cost will be covered by an increase in state allotments from the added enrollment, said Smith, the district's chief financial officer.

The district is also putting about $2.6 million into new classrooms at East Lake High School, which will house a new middle school program. The school district also took over Gulf Coast Academy, a Largo charter school for at-risk students that was closing, and will get state funding for its 350 students.

The overall budget — including capital dollars, grants and federal stimulus money — is down slightly compared to last year's. The district is getting fewer dollars for capital projects, which include construction and school maintenance. It is also getting less federal grant funding, although that is expected to grow significantly over the year.

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