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  1. The Education Gradebook

Hernando School Board agrees on September for sales tax vote

BROOKSVILLE — Judging it the best of several bad options left available by Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson, the Hernando County School Board has agreed to hold its half-cent sales tax referendum in September, two months earlier than the preferred date.

"There is no good decision here," School Board member Matt Foreman said at a workshop Tuesday. "Every option carries things in favor and things against."

The board was put in this position after it decided last month to hold a special election for the tax -— expected to raise a badly needed $8.5 million per year — in November.

Anderson said that would interfere with her plans to install new voting equipment, which she will receive in October. Her office needs to immediately start testing the system and training staff to be ready for the presidential primary in March.

That meant, she wrote in a letter to the board last week, that the latest date she could offer for an election is Sept. 8. Or, she wrote, "I would be able to conduct an all-mail ballot election in early November. This is the best option I can provide."

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso advised against challenging Anderson's schedule demands, which left the board to decide between the September date, the mail-only election in November, or postponing it until 2016.

Board member Beth Narverud argued for the mail-only option, pointing out that it would cost about $244,000, or only about $12,000 more than the conventional special election. And, if successful, it would still allow the district to start collecting revenue on the same date as the September election — Jan. 1, 2016.

Foreman favored delaying the vote until next year, saying the time was needed to mount a successful campaign.

School District spokesman Eric Williams, the district's liaison with a sales tax task force, agreed. The task force needed to recruit teachers and parents to help get the word out about the need for the tax, which will be difficult to do when school's not in session.

Alfonso then listed the time-consuming jobs that still needed to be done, including forming a political action committee and getting language for the ballot approved by the state.

But other members of the task force said they were fine with the September date, and confident voters — who voted down a joint sales tax with the county last fall — would support a schools-only initiative.

"I did a little polling myself, informally," said Jo Ann Hartge, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "There is overwhelming support. Overwhelming. I have not heard one person who is against it."

School Board member Susan Duval asked why the task force wasn't already farther along.

"We've lost a month already, and that is frustrating to me," Duval said. "We need to be moving at the speed of lightning, and we seem to be caught up in talking about this."

"Let's get off our butts and do it," board member Mark Johnson said, favoring the September date, which was also the choice of board Chairman Gus Guadagnino.

With this majority, the board agreed to hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday to approve ballot language.

Narverud also said voters need to know that, though the sales tax revenue could only be spent on capital improvements such as new roofs and air-conditioning systems, its failure would mean more than leaky roofs.

Without the tax revenue, schools will have to pay for those improvements with money that would otherwise fund sports, music and arts programs that provide "a well-rounded education," she said.

"We have to tell people this is really in jeopardy," Narverud said.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

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