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School district budget includes tax increase

Pasco County property owners will see their school tax rate rise slightly with the School Board's approval of its $1.1 billion budget for the current academic year.

But the budget remains a work in progress, with holes remaining in this year's balancing act and major concerns lurking for the coming years.

Noting the budget includes millions of dollars in one-time federal stimulus funds, district officials expressed fears that the cuts they worked to avoid this time around might not be so easily passed over again.

"Although I am happy to present this budget to you today, I want to remind you that we are staring at a $46.7 million (hole) for next year that we will start working on tomorrow," chief financial officer Olga Swinson told the board Tuesday evening.

Board member Frank Parker called that hole the most critical part of the budget. Board member Kathryn Starkey said it made clear the need for voters to approve Amendment 8, which scales back the class size amendment and its associated costs.

"We're certainly aware that next year we'll have an even bigger problem," board vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley said.

The overall tax rate is $7.767 per $1,000 of taxable value. That includes a state-mandated increase of 17 cents per $1,000 so the district meets its required local effort for tax revenue, and also another 25 cents per $1,000 imposed at the board's discretion.

The owner of a $175,000 home with a homestead exemption would pay $1,165.05 in school taxes — $64.05 more than under the previous year's tax rate. But most residents have seen their properties drop in value over the past year, which will shrink the size of that tax hike for many. As a whole, taxpayers will contribute about $10 million less this year than last year because of those declining property values.

Lawmakers gave all school boards the option of imposing the 25-cent tax for "critical" operating needs, so long as the board approved it by a supermajority. Pasco board members accused lawmakers of failing to adequately fund education and then forcing school boards into making the decision to tax.

Seeing as that tax will generate a projected $5.6 million that the district otherwise would have to do without, the board members chose to implement it as the best bad alternative.

"This is absolutely necessary from my perspective," Parker said.

Four speakers — all stalwart United School Employees of Pasco members — strongly urged the board to approve the tax.

View it "not a burden to taxpayers but a public investment," Land O'Lakes High teacher Robert Marsh said. "We are the last bulwark of defense to the dumbing down of our nation."

Only Starkey voted against the tax. She has repeatedly said property owners should not have to pay more taxes during a recession.

If the board wants to continue that tax in future years, it must first win voter approval. That referendum appears on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The question of whether that extra tax revenue might be available after this year is but one shadow cast over the district's budget situation. The current spending plan also relies on several other one-time sources of cash, including about $30 million in federal stimulus funds.

After that money is spent, the district will have to find new ways to further reduce spending to make up the difference. A second round of stimulus funds approved recently can be used to offset next year's shortfall, but it is less than half the amount the district will lose.

Other one-time sources the board used to cover operating expenses in this year's budget include $4 million from capital funds and $1.5 million that was to be used for instructional materials.

The budget also includes $4 million saved through an early retirement plan and $2.1 million saved with a one-day furlough. Those items have yet to be agreed on through contract negotiations.

Those items will remain in the budget unless the district and the union do not arrive at a deal. At that time, the board may amend the spending plan as needed.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

School district budget includes tax increase 09/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 8:58pm]
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