The Hernando School Board, confronting a $5.8 million budget shortfall, is making matters worse by paying little heed to all available options. After three years of belt-tightening, the board said it will not consider a broad-based revenue source — a new property tax of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. It is short-sighted and indicative of a board, three members of which face re-election in August, more concerned with votes than kids and teachers.
The reluctance means a likely request for union givebacks — previously negotiated salary increases for employees based on years of service. The union's unfriendly response is not unreasonable considering the board just left $2.2 million on the table in the forfeited property tax.
The board incorrectly characterized the Legislature-authorized tax as an increase. That would be true if property values were steady or rising. But a 33 percent drop in the tax roll over the past three years means a continuing and ever-increasing tax break for thousands of property owners when the millage is unchanged.
Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek reported three-quarters of the 61,165 single-family homes in Hernando County now have identical market and assessed values — meaning they are not subject to the Save Our Homes recapture rule that requires a 2.7 percent assessment bump. So, for the vast majority of county property owners, a slight property tax rate increase will be more than offset by the average 13.7 drop in value for 2010 and still will result in lower property tax bills compared to a year ago.
Regardless, School Board members promised budget-cutting alternatives that could include reassigning assessment teachers, eliminating field trips and other unspecified options.
The board needs a broader vision. Last year, the Legislature gave financially strapped school districts the ability to raise the quarter mill tax with a supermajority vote of board members and more than 40 school districts followed suit to tap the extra tax money. Hernando chose not do so in 2009.
Maintaining that position this year is ill-advised. Adding $2.2 million to a budget deficit that already requires cuts due to flat state aid, the expense of meeting class-size requirements and declining revenue from a property tax roll is foolhardy, not frugal.
The School Board needs to remain flexible on the revenue side of the ledger. It can't cut its way to providing a high-quality education to Hernando's children.