TAMPA — With many needs and some unanswered questions, the Hillsborough County School District is heading into budget season.
The first of two public hearings is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday on the $2.8 billion budget and a lower property tax rate for schools.
The good news is that even at the lower rate, the district will collect more money thanks to increased property values.
The not-so-good news is that when that happens, the state provides less funding.
So why not lower taxes even more and let the state make up the difference?
The School Board doesn't have that choice. It has to adopt the state-mandated rate if it wants the state to contribute more than $900 million, which makes up more than half the operating budget of $1.74 billion.
Other money that goes in and out of the district for debt service, anti-poverty programs, exceptional student education and the school lunch program contribute to the total $2.8 billion.
Homeowners in 2013-14 will pay slightly less in school taxes, assuming the package passes after two hearings. Where school taxes on a $125,000 home — minus the $25,000 homestead exemption — were $787.70 this year, that amount will be $769 in the coming year.
"We generate more local dollars, but we get less state dollars because of the equalization," said Gretchen Saunders, the district's chief business officer. School districts where property values did not improve will get some of the money that would have gone to Hillsborough.
That means resources available for the district to spend will be fairly flat.
And it promises to be an expensive year as the district tackles new projects and catches up on work that was stalled during the recession. Among the places where the district expects to spend money:
• A reorganization of nine divisions, approved by the board July 16, will cost more than $1 million, most of it in the school lunch program.
• The district committed last year to improving security at its schools, including fences and gates where needed. The access improvements alone add up to $1.6 million.
• Safety concerns in exceptional student education, including mandatory training for paraprofessionals.
• Changes to the Florida retirement system will cost the district an additional $22 million.
• The district has not bought new school buses in four years, Saunders said. At least 100 buses are needed, at a cost of about $110,000 apiece.
• During the past legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott promised pay raises to the state's teachers. The Legislature backed him up, but it is not yet clear if the state allotment of $33 million — plus $2 million for charter schools — will pay the entire cost in Hillsborough.
District officials also do not know what the final effect will be of sequestration, the spending cuts resulting from the federal Budget Control Act of 2011.
A second hearing on the tax rate and budget will take place Sept. 10.