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District okays budget with lower tax rate

The school district's tax rate will decrease slightly this year, leaving school officials to juggle how they will fund costly initiatives such as reducing class sizes, hiring more teachers and building new schools.

The School Board unanimously approved its 2004-05 budget and millage rate during a final public hearing Tuesday night.

That hearing was supposed to take place earlier this month but was postponed because of Frances and the possibility of Hurricane Ivan. Finance director Carol MacLeod had to e-mail a tentative budget to Tallahassee in order to meet the statutory deadline of Sept. 11.

Still, she noted, "we are in good stead compared to many, many school districts" still coping with the lingering effects of the storms.

The district's tax rate dipped to $8.959 per $1,000 of assessed value, the first time in more than a decade that figure has gone below $9 per $1,000.

For a house assessed at $100,000, with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the school tax bill would be $671.93.

The Legislature sets the millage rate for school districts, MacLeod said. School district taxes have been decreasing for the past several years.

The trend befuddled vice chairman Jim Malcolm, who said the board's inability to freeze the millage rate costs the district thousands of dollars each year. To make up for the loss, the board then has to ask the public for more sales tax revenue, he said.

"Makes sense, doesn't it?" he asked sarcastically.

The board also passed a $121.5-million operating budget, up from $102-million in fiscal year 2004, which ended June 30.

MacLeod said the increase is primarily because of the state-mandated class size amendment, a measure aimed at reducing the number of students per classroom over eight years. The district hired more than 200 new teachers to meet the demands of the amendment and the ever-growing student population.

Thus, the biggest chunk of additional money will go toward salaries.

Only three members of the public attended the board's budget hearing: School Board candidates Linda Prescott and Pat Fagan and substitute bus driver Gerard Pastick, who was the only one of the three to speak.

The nine-year substitute bus driver repeated the pitch he made at the first budget hearing in late July, when he said he had not had a raise in four years. He acknowledged that a workshop had been scheduled for December to discuss the issue but said that wasn't soon enough to have an impact on this year's budget.

The district has eight substitute bus drivers. However, it has many more substitute teachers and secretaries, officials said, and each group wants a pay increase.

After Pastick's first appeal, the board agreed to raise pay by 50 cents an hour for all substitute employees. Tuesday night, when he again asked for an increase from $8.30 an hour to $9.80 an hour for drivers, members committed only to hold their workshop sooner.

The workshop will be held Oct. 19 at 3 p.m.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 848-1432 or cjenkinssptimes.com.

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