Should the Hernando School Board have the ability to raise the property tax rate in the next two budget years to help fund the school district?
That's the question that will be put to voters in a referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot.
If the referendum passes by a simple majority, the board would have the power to increase the tax rate by .25 mills for operating expenses in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 budget years. A mill is equivalent to $1 per $1,000 of taxable property value, so a quarter mill would cost $25 for the owner of a $125,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption.
It's important to note that approval of the referendum does not mean an automatic tax rate increase. Rather, the School Board would have to approve the so-called "critical needs levy" by a supermajority vote each year.
Two years ago, the Legislature gave school boards direct authority to increase the millage for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budget years.
After that, districts need voter permission to levy the tax, so school boards had to decide this summer whether to put the question on the November ballot.
Despite declining revenue, Hernando School Board members decided against the levy in each of the last two budget cycles, citing an aversion to increase the burden on taxpayers during the recession. But they did agree to put the referendum on the ballot.
The extra millage would have brought in roughly $2 million this year, and superintendent Bryan Blavatt and the local teachers union president had recommended that the board levy the tax. Thanks to funds carried over from last year, the district was able to avoid deep cuts in its 2010-11 budget.
But school officials warn that next year could be much tougher as property values continue to drop and the district loses millions in federal stimulus dollars. So when voters go to the polls and get to the referendum question, they will have to decide whether they are willing to pay a higher school tax rate and whether they trust the board to exercise its power with discretion.