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  1. Education

Hernando school officials consider raising taxes to make schools safer

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Hernando County School District
Published May 1, 2018

BROOKSVILLE — In 1998, Hernando County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund construction of Nature Coast Technical High. The same tax passed again in 2004, helping the district build six more schools. Then again in 2015.

Now, in the name of school safety, Hernando school officials could go back to voters a fourth time — either for another half-cent sales tax or to raise the property tax rate.

School Board members are considering the options as they scramble to fund more than $22 million in school safety measures recently mandated by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, following the February school shooting in Parkland that left 17 dead.

The money would be used to "harden" Hernando schools, or make them safer, as specified by the Florida Department of Education. So far, the agency has called for more secure entries, changes in lighting and the addition of automatic locks, security systems, fencing and bullet-proof glass.

The list of requirements is expected to grow substantially — as is the total cost — as representatives from the state, district and Sheriff's Office identify safety needs in schools, Superintendent Lori Romano said at an April 24 School Board workshop. A state grant of up to $720,000 is available, but the district has to fund the rest, she said.

The school system's tight financial situation is compounded by the recent addition of 10 school resource officers. County commissioners agreed in February to split the cost of the new officers with the district through October. But it remains undecided whether the county, which also is strapped for cash, will continue the partnership, Romano said.

"Increasing taxes is never, never a fun conversation," the superintendent said. "But we have no other way to generate additional revenue."

One option for the School Board is a 10-year extension of the half-cent sales tax. If passed, it would generate about $10.3 million a year, according to Joyce McIntyre, director of finance and purchasing for the school district.

Another option is increasing the millage, or property tax rate. The current rate is 6.619 mills, and the district can propose a rate of up to 10 mills. For each additional mill, the district brings in another $9.5 million a year, McIntyre said.

By the end of the workshop, officials opted to wait on a decision until later this month, when they are expected to learn specifics about what is needed at each school — and when.

Board Chairman Mark Johnson asked that Romano report back about what other districts are doing. Board members Susan Duval and Beth Narverud asked for a prioritized time line of needs, while Gus Guadagnino wondered whether the district could partner with the county.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso, directed by Johnson to draft resolutions for both tax increase options, urged officials to act quickly if they want to secure a spot on an upcoming election ballot.

"The time line contemplates just getting the paper(work) done," he said. "Somebody's gotta go out and communicate the message and the need effectively, which is a big component of the success."

Officials have until noon on June 22 to get an item on the ballot for the primary election in August, according to Hernando Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson. The deadline for the November general election is August 24, she said. Otherwise, Romano said, the district would have spend about $300,000 to hold a special election for a tax referendum.

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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