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School budget could tweak property taxes

Under a budget proposal being sent to the Pinellas School Board next week, the property tax rate will increase slightly, though less than originally thought.

The proposed school district property tax rate for the upcoming year _ $8.49 for each $1,000 in taxable property value _ is just higher than the rate levied last year, $8.43. Earlier in the budget process, the district thought it might have to levy property taxes of $8.64 per $1,000 in taxable property value.

Under the proposed tax rate, someone with a $100,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $636.53 for schools, up several dollars from $632.48 last year. That assumes the value of the home remained the same both years; because of rising property values, many homeowners will see an even bigger tax bill.

The proposed tax rate is part of the 2001-2002 budget that will be presented to the School Board at a public hearing July 31. The hearing begins at 7 p.m. in district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.

At that meeting, the School Board will vote on a cap for the tax rate. Final approval of the tax rate and budget is set for 7 p.m. Sept. 11. The school tax is just one part of the tax bill and will be included with taxes levied by your city, the county, the water management district and perhaps others, depending on where you live.

The School Board has little flexibility in how high the property tax rate is set because the state requires that a certain amount be charged. Most of the board's power is in deciding where money should be spent; during annual budget public hearings, few taxpayers attend to make their opinions known.

For 2001-2002, the state required the district to levy $5.84 per $1,000 of taxable property value.

The state outlined the maximum amount of "discretionary tax" the district could levy, and budget officials are recommending that the School Board levy the maximum, $0.65. Another $2 per $1,000 in taxable property value _ also the maximum _ is being recommended for capital projects, including new and renovated schools in St. Petersburg.

In workshops with the School Board, district administrators have painted this as one of the grimmest budgets in years. The state gave Pinellas $16-million less than last year, and much of the "new money" was allocated for specific purchases, such as textbooks and one-time teacher bonuses. With less flexible spending, Pinellas officials had to find $12.8-million to balance the budget.

Departments have cut 2 percent of their costs, schools have to cut 10 percent of their discretionary budgets and some district-level jobs are being left open. A new state law required Pinellas to spend an additional $5.6-million on teachers because the state said the district held back too many students. Because of the state mandate, certified educators working on special assignment in district offices or in other capacities are being returned to classrooms.

That has created another problem.

With employees being moved from support posts, such as curriculum and technology specialists, into teaching posts, Pinellas had fewer openings than it had anticipated. That meant that new teachers awarded advance contracts this spring are finding that the jobs they had been promised are no longer available.

Their contracts still will be honored and new teachers will be paid the salaries they were promised. However, some might start in non-teaching jobs until slots open after the school year begins.

In the 2001-2002 budget, teachers will get an average of 2.7 percent raises plus a one-time bonus of $850. Support employees and administrators will get average salary increases of 2.5 percent.

The district also is continuing to absorb rising health insurance costs for employees, but employees will probably have to begin sharing some of those increases in the near future. Health care costs rose more than 18 percent, costing the district $8-million more this year than last.

On average this year, the district will spend $728 per employee annually on health care.

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