Hernando County voters should give their school board the flexibility it needs to balance its budget the next two years. The flexibility comes in the shape of authority to levy a temporary tax of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Just giving the board the ability to assess the tax does not guarantee members will choose to do it. That happened earlier this year when the board declined to levy the new tax even though it had legislative authority to do so.
Instead, the board approved a $174.2 million general fund budget that avoided draconian cuts, maintained courtesy transportation and put off decisions on charging students to play sports or participate in other activities. The board balanced the budget with a $6 million windfall from holding open vacant positions and spending less on diesel fuel.
But those are one-time savings that will not be repeated. Additionally, in the 2011-12 budget, the district is looking at the loss of $7 million in federal stimulus dollars it had at its disposal the past two years. That is a $13 million hole at the outset of next year's budget. By comparison, a new quarter-mill tax would raise $2.2 million this year.
The flexibility is imperative because the property tax rolls have lost more than a third of their value over the past three years and there is no indication the trend is reversing. Meanwhile, the district must account for the $4 million expense of meeting class size requirements. It means the Hernando School Board faces another difficult budget season, and members should be able to use all the tools available.
The Legislature created the quarter-mill tax for cash-strapped districts in 2009 and more than 40 school boards took advantage. School boards can levy the tax, with voter approval and a four-fifths vote of the board, for two additional years.
The Times recommends voters allow the board the ability to use the property tax if necessary. Voters should say "yes'' to the referendum question: "Shall the school board have the authority to levy 0.25 mills for critical operating needs for fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13 pursuant to Florida Statutes?''