BROOKSVILLE — The tentative 2012-13 budget for the Hernando County school system would dip deeply into the district's reserves. Deeply enough, superintendent Bryan Blavatt warned School Board members Tuesday, that for the second consecutive year the district would be placed on a state watch list.
That's a scary prospect, Blavatt said during the board's first public hearing on the budget.
"If we have a crisis … we can't meet one payroll with what we have right now," he said. "It could be terrible."
The budget has the district's reserve dropping down to $2.95 million, roughly 2.06 percent of the estimated general fund revenues.
Districts that let their reserve fund fall below 3 percent are placed on the state watch list. 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.
"It's no good to be below 2 percent," he said.
The amount in reserves could decrease more before the final budget is approved in September. The tentative budget is based on a 96 percent tax collection rate. Hernando is several percentage points below that rate this year, meaning the district will likely not bring in as much money.
"With all of that in consideration, if the wind blows and blows the roof off one of our schools, we're in crisis," he said. "That's how close we are to crisis."
The School Board approved the tentative budget 3-2, a surprisingly close margin that brought chills to chief financial officer Desiree Henegar. School Board member John Sweeney, who did not return calls Wednesday from the Times, and board Vice Chairman Matt Foreman vote against the budget.
"How am I supposed to vote for a budget that has minimal reserves?" Foreman asked Henegar before the vote. It "contemplates an increase of roughly $9 million in salaries at a time when we're having to cut services to students."
He then asked of the 7 percent increase in salaries and benefits: "What's the justification?"
And the flood gates opened.
Blavatt used it as an opportunity to paint a picture of the district's unions demanding money in a time of budget cuts and low budget reserves.
Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo responded and said that the district builds a significant safety net. His evidence? The district ended last year with a $16 million surplus.
"You have reserves within your line items," he told the School Board during the budget hearing.
Blavatt said that money was hard earned and represented substantial cuts by the district.
Vitalo also took issue with the portrayal that union employees were getting a $9 million raise.
"We're not getting a 7 percent raise," he said. "We're not getting that."
"I know it's easy to come back and start pointing the finger. But please, don't point it at us. We're not the big, bad wolf in here."
To that, Blavatt responded: "There's a lot of folks around you, Joe, that aren't getting anything. People without jobs."
While the school district has dipped below the 3 percent reserve threshold, it eliminated a roughly $2.6 million budget shortfall without some of the more drastic cuts that had been floated.
One proposal, for example, had been to suspend automatic seniority raises, which could have saved roughly $2 million, according to the district.
Still, the district has made significant cuts.
Each school and the district office cut 10 percent last year and were asked to cut another 10 percent for 2012-13, a move that some principals said has cut to the bone. Student allocations, the amount the district gives to schools for each student, have also gone down. Teachers and parents have been forced to pick up the slack.
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.