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Schools' project budget increases by $4-million

The School Board has an additional $4-million to spend on small construction projects this year and nobody _ not the superintendent, not board members nor the budget director _ seems to know why.

Last winter, then-superintendent John Sanders told the School Board they had about $2-million to spend on things like new roofs, paint jobs and new sidewalks for schools around the county during the year that ended June 30.

But Tuesday, school district finance director Carol MacLeod says the board has $6-million to spend this year on small school projects.

Why was there a $4-million leap from one year to the next?

"I don't know," MacLeod said.

MacLeod inherited a messy situation in December when she took the job as director of the Hernando school system's finance office. Her two predecessors had resigned during the previous seven months.

Upon her arrival, nobody knew exactly how much money the schools had to run day-to-day operations, much less spend on the long-term construction and repair projects.

Eleven months later, MacLeod is still trying to figure things out. She is convinced that the $6-million figure for this year's small projects and repairs is accurate. But she was at a loss to describe why the same budget was three times smaller last year.

The School Board spent two hours Tuesday talking about details in this year's spending plan. Eventually, they agreed to spend more than $1.9-million on a variety of projects. They put off decisions on what to do with the remaining $4-million.

Through most of the discussions, no one raised the question of why there was so much more money to spend this year.

In side conversations, a Times reporter asked board chairman Jim Malcolm and superintendent Wendy Tellone to explain the quirk. Neither had an answer. Eventually, Malcolm publicly put the question to MacLeod.

"I have no idea," MacLeod responded. "We had such concern over the general (operating) fund that I didn't have time to get into the capital (construction) fund. We're looking at it."

MacLeod said she intends to search for the elusive answer. She suspects last year's capital projects budget contained more money than the $2-million offered up to the board.

If there was more money was there, MacLeod said that cash is still in the bank.

Asked Tuesday if she could tell how much money was in the bank, MacLeod said she could not. But she would not rule out the possibility that there could be more than $1-million or $2-million in unspent capital cash laying around unused.

This, at a time when the board has been searching for two years to find the cash to build full service kitchens at Eastside Elementary and Westside Elementary so children there can have hot lunches to eat. Currently, their lunches are cooked at other schools and trucked in.

Board member John Druzbick, who has been on the board for seven years, had no explanation for the sudden jump in the capital budget. "It's a good question," he said.

Robert Wiggins, a board member for nearly three years and a man who works in the finance office of the county utilities department, said: "I hadn't thought much about it until you brought it up. I'm sure there's a good explanation. I'm relatively sure."

_ Times staff writer Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

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