LAND O’LAKES — Pasco County property owners could see their local taxes go up this fall by 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
Lawmakers have authorized school districts to increase their property tax rates for critical operating needs. All they need to do is get a supermajority of the board — in Pasco’s case, four of the five School Board members — to approve it. Facing a projected budget shortfall of $5 million, not including any midyear added cuts that the state might impose, Pasco school leaders are taking a close look at whether to impose such a tax. They say it could raise $6 million for the district.
United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb urged the School Board on Tuesday to strongly consider the tax as a preferable alternative to laying off staff or cutting academic programs.
“While I know this option is distasteful — the superintendent and I have talked about that, because it puts more of a burden on funding on the local level — … the fact of the matter is the Legislature has failed to deal with the funding side,” Webb said.
The district should meet its responsibilities regardless, she suggested. But a tax hike might not be as much of a solution as it looks on first blush, chief financial officer Olga Swinson told the board.
In allowing districts to raise the tax, she said, lawmakers also included provisions that would have the state make up the difference for poorer counties that cannot raise the same amount as wealthier ones.
That could mean that the districts that collect more than the state average might end up handing the extra dollars to the districts with less, Swinson warned.
“There’s still some confusion on this one,” superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. “We’re still trying to dig this out … and figure out if this will benefit us or not benefit us.”
Board members agreed to wait until they know more before taking any action. But their immediate reaction was one of disdain.
“Okay. We’re not doing that one,” board member Kathryn Starkey announced after hearing that the district might have to give away as much as half its revenue. “Only the poor counties are going to do it, looking to come up.”
During their budget workshop, the board also mentioned how they have been getting upset calls from employees worried about their jobs. They said teachers are hearing from their principals that the schools will have fewer positions, and then reading in the paper that the goal is to avoid all layoffs. There’s a disconnect that needs to be addressed, board vice chairman Allen Altman said.
Fiorentino explained that the district will have fewer jobs listed in its employee allocations that can be paid for with state and local money, because there is less money than last year.
Once it establishes that base level, she continued, the district will then apply for federal stimulus funds to help save and create jobs needed for the schools to appropriately educate children.
An early retirement incentive plan might help create added vacancies, as well as the usual churn of staff, she added.
It will be an elaborate and drawn out process, with no promises that everyone will have a job in the end, she said. But the goal, Fiorentino said, remains to have every employee who wants a job somewhere in the district when classes begin in the fall.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.