BROOKSVILLE — When voters fill in their ballots this year, they can send one of two messages to the Hernando School Board.
One is this: We trust you with the power to raise our property tax rate by 25 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value in each of the next two fiscal years if the school district's budget picture is so dire you feel you have no choice but to do so.
The other message: Don't even consider the notion of a higher tax rate, period. No matter how much red ink you're facing, figure out how to balance the budget with the resources you have.
A referendum on the ballot asks Hernando voters to decide whether to allow the board to assess the so-called critical needs millage levy to bolster the general operating fund in the 2011-12 and 2012-2013 budget years.
The levy would mean an additional $25 on the bill of a home assessed at $100,000 after homestead exemptions.
The approval of the referendum — which requires a simple majority — does not mean an automatic tax rate increase. Rather, the five-member board would have to approve the levy by a super-majority vote each year.
Motorists won't see Hernando board Chairman Pat Fagan standing by the roadside holding signs urging voters to approve the referendum. But Fagan said it's crucial for the board to have the option since state lawmakers have failed to properly fund education and is now shifting more of the revenue-raising burden on the local school boards.
"I hope that the voter takes this issue and really thinks hard about it," Fagan said. "The state Legislature put us in the situation we're in by taking the money away from us. This is one of ways they are putting it on our backs and not theirs."
The school property tax rate is set largely by the state. But two years ago, the Legislature gave school boards direct authority to levy the additional quarter mill. After that, lawmakers decided, school boards would have to ask the voters for permission through a referendum.
Despite declining revenue, the Hernando School Board has decided against the levy in each of the last two budget cycles, citing an aversion to increasing the burden on taxpayers during the recession. But they did agree this year to put the referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The extra millage would have added about $2 million to the district's coffers this year, and superintendent Bryan Blavatt and the president of the local teachers union had recommended the board levy the tax. At one point, the district estimated a deficit in the $174 million general fund budget of nearly $6 million, but thanks to savings carried over from last year, the red ink turned black without the board resorting to deep cuts.
Serious financial issues are looming next year, however, said chief financial officer Desiree Henegar.
The district received about $14 million in stimulus dollars the last two years that helped bolster the budget, but those funds won't return next year. Hernando is in line to receive about $4.65 million from the recently passed teacher jobs bill which will help to pay for positions funded by the stimulus dollars, said Henegar, who emphasized that she was not advocating for or against the referendum.
But the state's education funding level is always an uncertainty, and property values throughout Florida and in the county continue to slide.
As well, polls show that the proposed constitutional amendment on Tuesday's ballot to ease the 2002 class size requirements will likely fail. That means the district, which has already spent close to $2.5 million to meet the requirements in large part through short-term solutions like hiring substitutes and paying teachers to take an extra class, will have to hire more full-time teachers at greater expense.
The district also must budget for the cost to operate the new K-8 school next to Weeki Wachee High set to open next fall, though the school will start with kindergarten through fifth grade. And benefit costs such as health insurance and retirement continue to climb, Henegar said.
Allowing the board the option to raise a couple of million dollars could be critical for a district that has been diligent in its efforts to be leaner as funding has diminished, Blavatt said.
"It would help us at least continue to maintain the levels that we're at," he said.
Board member James Yant said he's hopeful the referendum will pass but is not optimistic. Hernando residents are hurting financially, whether they are part of the working class, the unemployed, or retirees on fixed incomes, he said.
"It's hard to ask people for money," Yant said. "They really don't trust the politicians. I believe if they trusted us a little more, they would be more receptive to us asking. But you can't establish credibility just by saying something. You have to have a proven history, a record of doing the right thing."
Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, said the union is not actively campaigning to convince voters to do approve the measure.
The levy would help provide a good cushion for the district, though, Vitalo and the Hernando School Board has shown the kind of record that Yant talked about by refusing to raise the tax rate even in the face of a big deficit, Vitalo said. Two of three incumbents were re-elected in August. If Sandra Nicholson wins a runoff next week, the same board will be in place for the next two years.
If the voters do pass the referendum, "the only way that quarter mill is going to be approved (by the board) is if the budget is so broken that there are no resources and nothing left to trim and you have to go to your safety net," Vitalo said.
Skeptical voters like Cindy Hall of Weeki Wachee will likely be hard to convince.
Hall voted early — and against the tax levy referendum. One of her son's graduated from Central High last year and another is dually enrolled at Central and Pasco-Hernando Community College, and Hall said the district has not done everything to cut out "massive waste."
"When it truly becomes about the kids, I'll truly give my money with a glad heart," Hall said.
Blavatt said he appreciates that perception, but it is perception, not reality. Some 86 percent of the general fund is spend on personnel, and the district is lean there, he said.
"The bottom line if we had a third party researcher come in, which we can't afford to do, they would find we're extremely efficient in most areas, and there isn't a lot of fat here," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.