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SCHOOL BUDGET, TAX RATE TO BE SET

Board members will consider a higher tax rate than last year and a smaller budget.

The Pasco County School Board will take on its key role Tuesday as it officially sets the district tax rate and adopts a budget for the 2010 fiscal year.

It expects to approve a tax rate of $7.34 per $1,000 of property value, up 13.2 cents from last year. The owner of a $175,000 home who did not see any decrease in assessed value would pay $1,101 in school taxes, up $19.80.

Earlier this summer, the board refused to tack an additional 25 cents per $1,000 onto the rate, saying property owners could not afford any higher taxes than what the state has required for Pasco's local effort. Lawmakers gave school boards the option to increase their taxes for "critical operating needs," a move that several other districts opted to take.

Pasco declined the move even as local property values decreased by 13.8 percent. Combined with reductions in state support, that translates into a general operating budget that's $29 million less than two years ago - when the district had about 1,000 fewer students to educate and four fewer schools to run.

Other changes complicated the planning process.

The state, for instance, replaced $23 million of its funds with nonrecurring money from the federal stimulus package. It also shifted funding for things like busing and books into the general budget.

Such moves, when factored with rising costs of services and supplies, have pressured the district to cut back spending, particularly as it relates to employees.

"We had to reduce our allocations," chief financial officer Olga Swinson said.

The district has 243 fewer employees this year than last, with the reductions coming through attrition and not layoffs. Workers did not receive raises last year, and superintendent Heather Fiorentino has offered only nonrecurring bonuses this year.

Bonuses considered

The School Board has been able to place bonuses on the table because the administration set aside $9.1 million in case lawmakers decide to further slash state support of public schools during the fall, as they have done in past years. Signals coming out of Tallahassee are that no such cuts are coming, so the money is available to spend.

A portion of the money is expected to go into paying for rising health insurance costs, so the district does not have to charge employees for individual coverage. The remainder has been put forth for consideration as a one-time payment to employees.

The United School Employees of Pasco is surveying its members on whether they support taking a bonus, or if they want the association to continue pressing for raises.

The USEP has called upon the district to tap into its reserves for raises, a move Swinson has resisted. She has argued that the district's reserve is only slightly over 5 percent, a level considered minimal to support bond ratings.

Board members have shown no inclination to reduce the reserve.

On the capital projects side, the district continues to build new schools. It expects to open an elementary school in Trinity and another in Connerton, and a high school in Hudson, next fall.

Spending for such projects, however, is budgeted to be $82 million less than a year ago.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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