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Hernando school district, commission spar over tax referendum date

Commissioners refused to place the measure on the November ballot, approving it for 2024 instead.
Hernando County teachers wave signs in 2015 in support of the school district's half-cent sales tax for schools referendum. This year, the School Board is fighting with the County Commission over when to ask voters to extend the measure.
Hernando County teachers wave signs in 2015 in support of the school district's half-cent sales tax for schools referendum. This year, the School Board is fighting with the County Commission over when to ask voters to extend the measure. [ Times (2015) ]
Published May 26

The Hernando County School Board and County Commission are headed for a showdown over a sales tax referendum that could have statewide reverberations.

At issue is which governing body gets to decide when voters consider extending a school district’s tax.

The School Board wants to hold its election in November — three years before its current initiative expires — as a way to better plan its future construction projects. The commission, which has been highly critical of the board in recent years, refused to put the matter on the 2022 ballot.

It decided a vote in 2024 would provide plenty of time for the district to prepare.

Both bodies pointed to the same Florida law (Chapter 212.055) to bolster their argument as to why they have the authority to decide. Displeased with the commission’s action, the board recently decided to ask the circuit court to determine which agency is right.

The board hired veteran local government lawyer Joe Mason to help make its case in court. A complaint had not been filed as of early Thursday.

With a growing number of school districts across the state calling sales tax questions to raise revenue for their capital needs — Hillsborough County schools passed one in 2018, and Pasco County schools are seeking renewal of theirs this fall — the outcome in Hernando could affect who controls those efforts.

To Dennis Alfonso, the School Board’s general counsel, the commission’s attempt to postpone the referendum is a “big stretch” in interpreting the law.

He pinned his view on the language that a school board “may levy” the tax with the approval of the voters, and the item “shall be placed on the ballot by the governing body of the county.” There’s no wiggle room in that, Alfonso contended, adding that the only time “discretion” is mentioned in the law is in describing the tax as discretionary.

“It is not the discretion of the County Commission to choose when the vote occurs,” he said.

Commission chairperson Steve Champion disagreed.

Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion
Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion

“We’re going by what our lawyers say,” Champion explained. “We have to say yes on a ballot initiative for a referendum. But it does not say when.”

The law states that a sales tax referendum “must be held at a general election.”

Hernando is not the first county to fight over this issue. Duval and Clay counties had similar disputes leading to the 2020 election.

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In the only court ruling directly on point, a Clay County circuit judge in 2019 sided with commissioners.

“While a school board may want complete control over when the resolution goes onto a ballot, it is not necessary or essential for them to have that control in order for them to complete the task of levying a sales surtax,” wrote Judge Steven Whittington.

He noted that state law clearly grants sole authority to school boards for setting elections in other matters, such as asking for a property tax increase and determining whether a superintendent should be elected or appointed.

As a result, Whittington concluded, “when the Legislature wants to grant to the district school boards the authority to directly place a resolution on the ballot, it says so.”

Champion suggested that the Hernando commissioners are following that rationale. He further noted that three board seats are up for election in November, and a new majority might be elected that does not wish to continue the tax.

At least two of the challengers have received money from groups associated with Republican state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who has called for a turnover on the panel and attempted to advance legislation to shift Hernando to an elected superintendent.

“There’s a mess at the School Board,” Champion said. “We’re not going to be complicit.”

Board members did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Alfonso, the School Board lawyer, looked at the Clay County ruling as a single judge’s opinion, in a jurisdiction that has no effect on Hernando. He contended the matter should be decided locally.

Both predicted success and hoped for quick action. Hernando election supervisor Shirley Anderson has set a deadline of noon Aug. 19 to place an item on the November ballot.

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