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Lower tax rate, higher savings in proposed Hernando schools budget

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Hernando County School District
Published Jul. 25, 2018

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County school officials on Tuesday gave tentative approval to a $279 million budget that touts increased savings and zero cuts to student services.

Kendra Sittig, budget director for the school district, said it's the 2018/19 budget is the most solid she has presented to the School Board since she took the job three years ago. Rather than suggestions for cuts, she brought officials a 10 percent reserve balance — nearly double that of this year's budget.

"It's good to be able to say we gave a fund balance that is healthy when we know that other school districts are struggling," she said. "It's good to give the board the opportunity to look at the needs and make decisions without having to worry about what to cut."

The proposed overall tax rate is 6.340 mills, down from this year's 6.619 mills. It is a combination of three rates: one set by the state, one set by the School Board and another for capital construction.

The state's rate decreased by .279 mills, but an overall increase in property values means the district will collect 2.12 percent more in local tax revenue, or about $1.2 million more in total, according to budget documents provided by the district.

A mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value, meaning a resident would pay $20.93 less than this year on a house valued at $100,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption, given that the property value stayed the same.

Up from 6 percent last year, the budget projects a 10 percent reserve totalling about $17 million. The School Board can use those funds however members see fit, Sittig said, but are bound by board policy to keep the balance at 5 percent.

Likely, Sittig said, the money will go toward school safety measures recently required by the state. Those include capital projects to harden schools against threats, as mandated by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which became law in March.

School Board member Susan Duval said she is "comfortable" with the budget and knows staff has worked hard to get the district's finances in check.

"I know they've taken a great deal of time with this and reviewed our spending many times to pull us out of the real financial problem we were in," she said. "The proposed budget is very fair."

The general fund, most of which covers school operations and salaries, is set at $190 million, up from $179 million this year. About $42 million is allocated for capital projects and $17 million is tied to debt service. The budget increases total spending by $13.4 million from this year.

Regular, state-mandated pay raises for teachers are included, Sittig said, but anything on top of that will be considered by the board once the budget is adopted in September.

The budget includes a $2.5 million allocation for school resource officers and a $653,000 Schools of Hope grant, which will go toward community programs at Moton Elementary School.

To the delight of School Board Chairman Mark Johnson, who last year suggested adding funds to replace aging school buses, more than a half-million dollars more will go to the transportation department.

He said the "cushion" provided by the substantial reserve balance gives him hope the board will be able to revive other projects and programs — both big and small — that were cut when the budget was tighter.

"Four years ago, we were in such a dire situation that we had to cut and cut and cut," Johnson said. "Now we're to the point where we can start to restore some of the things we did."

The final hearing on the proposed budget will be on Sept. 11 at 5 p.m. at the school district office, 919 N Broad St.

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

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hernando school 2017-2018 budget bolstered by higher property values

RELATED COVERAGE: Unhappy with superintendent's budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

RELATED COVERAGE: Hernando County balances budget without a tax increase — despite prior shortfall

RELATED COVERAGE: Hernando County may help fund school safety measures by cutting reserves

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