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SCHOOLS DEAL IN TAX RELIEF REALITIES

The potential for $93-million in cuts over the next four years could force a 40 percent staff reduction.

Sinking state tax revenues will likely force the Hernando County School Board to cut about $3.2-million from its budget this year, finance director Deborah Bruggink said last week.

But if that sounds bad, how about a $93-million cut?

That's how much the board would have to cut over four years if most voters opt for the "super homestead exemption" after approving a Jan. 29 tax-rollback referendum, Bruggink said. The figure is based on a state report sent to districts June 8.

If that worst-case scenario came true, Bruggink said, it would cost Hernando the equivalent of 300 staff positions in 2008-09 school year and 1,362 positions over four years - 40 percent of its current work force.

Superintendent Wayne Alexander said such cuts would be catastrophic for the fast-growing school system.

"People are going to save $800 or $1,000 (in taxes), but the services they are going to lose are enormous," he said.

In a 6 p.m. budget presentation Tuesday before the School Board, Bruggink plans to describe how that belt-tightening might begin.

She will ask School Board members to approve a tentative total budget of $452.8-million, down 0.7 percent from last year. A projected student enrollment increase of 957 students, to 23,278, will help push the district's operating expenses, which is part of the total budget, up 12.9 percent to $176.7-million.

For the owner of a $125,000 home using the homestead exemption, that would mean a school tax bill of $806.50 on a millage rate of 8.065, down $12.40 from last year, presuming the taxable value of the home remained the same.

The board is scheduled to vote on the tentative budget Tuesday and on a final budget Sept. 4.

Bruggink has set aside $3.2-million to cover the state's current budget shortfall. Earlier this summer, the state warned districts that tax revenues would fall about 4 percent short of projections, but that number now is closer to 2 percent, she said.

"I think it's going to be a tough couple of years," she added. "As a finance officer, it's always doom and gloom. But I think it's clear for the next couple of years, we're going to be fighting for every dollar."

But it's nothing compared with the pain of cutting 40 percent of the district's work force.

Whether that occurs depends on whether voters approve the Jan. 29 referendum to change the homestead exemption, and on how many property owners then choose the "super exemption" of 75 percent on the first $200,000 in home value and 15 percent of the next $300,000, Bruggink said.

If enough voters opt to remain with the current "Save Our Homes" or homestead exemptions, she said, the effect on the schools could be less than the worst-case scenario of $93-million in cuts over four years.

State legislators have promised to find money to shield schools from the tax plan's estimated $7.1-billion impact on school budgets. But some are skeptical of such promises.

"I'm genuinely concerned," Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, told the Times in June. "If you were a mother or father of a public school child, are you going to be happy with a promise?"

But Hernando County tax-cut advocate Linda Hayward said legislators could be trusted.

"I think I'd find it very, very hard to believe that the state would not find that money, especially after they promised it," she said. "I don't think they were trying to pull a fast one at all."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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