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  1. Education

Tonight: Area school districts unveil their budgets and tax rates for 2017-18

Photo illustration. [iStockphoto.com]

The area's three largest school districts, each with its own set of fiscal issues, will give the public a first look at their 2017-18 budgets tonight in public hearings around Tampa Bay.

The Hillsborough County School Board will take a preliminary vote on a nearly $3 billion budget and a proposed property tax rate of $6.60 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value — down from last year's rate of $6.91.

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

In Pinellas, the School Board will vote on a $1.5 billion budget and a proposed tax rate of $7.01 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value, which is down from last year's rate of $7.32.

The proposed tax rate for Pasco County schools also is down, from $6.78 last year to $6.56 for 2017-18.

Although tax rates are decreasing, the total tax bill for many properties will go up because of increased values.

Here is a closer look at how next year's budget is shaping up in each county:

Hillsborough

In some years the School Board votes on the budget without saying much at all. In 2016, superintendent Jeff Eakins got his budget passed and, that same week, eliminated about 50 clerical jobs in the central offices to save money. But nothing was said about it at the public hearing.

And at the first public hearing on the budget in 2015, not a word was said about the reserve fund crisis, even though board members had discussed the matter at a retreat.

Last week, members of a new School Board finance committee said they would like to get a better understanding of the district's finances, and to discuss spending instead of simply voting yes on the district's plans.

"I'm always amazed, with a budget as large as we have, that there's not more discussion on financials," said board member Melissa Snively, a member of the committee. "I've been in a lot of lot of organizations with much smaller budgets that spend much more time talking about finances than we do."

Board member Tamara Shamburger bemoaned what she considers a lack of focus. "There seems to be an identity crisis," she said. "Are we an educational institution or are we an employment agency? What are we? This is a multibillion dollar entity and we have to run it like one."

The district is now emerging from a "discovery" process, as some board members have called it, in which it paid the Gibson Consulting Group $818,000 to suggest efficiency fixes.

Gibson told the district it was overstaffed in teachers and clerical workers, wasteful in its use of transportation money and way behind the times in technology. The district is working to remedy those issues.

In addition, the district is under pressure to move forward with its union negotiations as teachers ready their classrooms for the Aug. 10 start date. The union wants $800 cost-of-living raises in addition to scheduled $4,000 increases that, for most teachers, come every three years.

District and union leaders disagree on both the cost of the pay package and how dire the financial picture is.

Pinellas

Despite the lower rate, many tax bills will grow because of a 7.7 percent increase in taxable property values. The new rate is expected to bring in $16.6 million more in school district revenue.

These preliminary numbers do not factor in salaries for teachers and support employees as negotiations with labor organizations have not been completed. It also does not factor in recommended updates to the district's five-year plan for major construction projects, which are scheduled to be discussed Sept. 12.

The School Board will be forced to revisit that plan and possibly alter or cancel upcoming projects since Pinellas is now expected to share $4.9 million of its capital outlay budget with charter schools. The board also will learn how much revenue it could expect since turning to the bond market to speed up larger projects.

Pasco

Although the district's main operating fund is increasing by 3 percent, preliminary numbers show its overall budget decreasing by more than $25 million. That's driven by a 22 percent decrease in its budget for construction projects.

This year, the district will open a new elementary school, Bexley Elementary, in Land O Lakes and a new combination middle and high school, Cypress Creek Middle High, in Wesley Chapel.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol. Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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