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SCHOOLS SAY LAWMAKERS FORCE TAX HIKE

The tax rate goes from $8.06 to $8.35 per $1,000 valuation.

The Pinellas County School Board approved a $1.46 billion budget Tuesday that increases the tax rate to prevent deeper education cuts. And board members blamed state lawmakers for making them do it.

This year, for the ninth year in a row, the Legislature forced districts to pay a greater share of education funding.

"I have grave concerns that they're passing the buck to us," said board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea.

The 2009-10 budget is built on a tax rate of $8.35 for every $1,000 of taxable property value - up from last year's rate of $8.06. The owner of a home with a taxable value of $150,000 after exemptions would pay $1,253 - up $44 from last year - if his property values did not drop.

Countywide, property values fell 11 percent since last year, so the higher tax rate brings the district $45.6 million less than it received last year.

The budget includes $37.7 million in federal stimulus money. But district officials still cut left and right, driven by shrinking enrollment and the biggest drops in state education spending in decades.

Among the cuts:

-$11.9 million less for transportation, a 26 percent reduction

-$821,000 less for general administration, a 21 percent reduction

-No raises for teachers for the second year in a row

The board voted unanimously for the overall budget, but not on one piece of the rate hike - a small, temporary increase the Legislature said school boards could raise if a super majority of members agreed.

Board member Carol Cook voted no. By shifting costs to districts, the Legislature is not living up to state constitutional requirements that it provide an adequate education for its students, she said.

But other board members said voting no would leave students in a lurch.

The new budget suggests the district doesn't expect the trend to change. It includes a $17.2 million reserve fund, which district officials say will ease the landing when the stimulus money runs out in two years.

They call it the "cliff reserve."

In other action

The board voted to:

-Take another step toward a temporary change in the district's exam exemption policy. The policy allows high school students to skip some semester exams if they maintain good grades and attendance. But with fears of swine flu looming, Superintendent Julie Janssen has proposed scrapping the attendance piece and making the grade criteria more stringent.

-Approve a settlement with former John Hopkins Middle School principal Maureen Thornton. Her contract was not renewed last year after district officials concluded she had used her position for personal gain and had engaged in unauthorized use of school property. Under the settlement, her 45-day suspension, which she has already served, will be officially shortened to 30 days, and she will be paid the difference, about $5,300. In return she will withdraw her request for an administrative hearing.

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