Hernando School Board gets good news: a balance budget for 2016-17

Low prices for bus fuel contributed to a surprise balanced budget for the Hernando County School District.
Low prices for bus fuel contributed to a surprise balanced budget for the Hernando County School District.
Published June 9, 2016

BROOKSVILLE — A windfall from the Hernando County School District's health insurer. Low prices for fuel for its buses. Increased tax revenue.

All these factors led to the kind of news the Hernando School Board hasn't heard in years:

"We are a able to present you with a balanced budget," executive director of business services Heather Martin said during a board workshop Tuesday.

Martin also pointed out the dramatic change from a year ago, when in the early stages of budget discussions board members were asked to consider teacher layoffs and eliminating art and music programs.

"Last year at this time, we presented to you a deficit of $12 million," she said.

And there was another piece of good news, she said. The reserve fund had been on track to fall nearly a full percentage point below the 3 percent the state Department of Education recommends as a minimum. Now, it appears, at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, the district's reserves will be above that threshold.

The balanced budget forecast for next fiscal year also includes a 3 percent reserve.

The discussion was limited to the district's general fund, which pays for school operations, not capital improvements. Therefore, the increased revenue does not include about $8.5 million the district expects to raise from the half-cent sales tax that voters approved last year. That money is earmarked for upgrades such as the replacement of old roofs and air-conditioning systems.

Overall, the district is expected to take in $159 million next year, based on the calculations of state and local income from the state Department of Education.

That's about $1.8 million more than this year, and it could rise higher. Budget director Kendra Sittig said the figure did not include county Property Appraiser John Emerson's recent estimate of real estate values for the coming year, which he expects to climb about 2.8 percent.

The School Board applauded lightly after Martin's presentation, although School Board member Susan Duval reminded everyone of the goal to bring reserves to a more comfortable 5 percent of the general fund budget.

Martin said she expects that it will happen in two to three years.

Also, students can expect to go home from school early one day per month next year to allow time for professional development for teachers, according to a plan presented at the workshop by members of the school's calendar committee.

Central High School principal John Stratton said nations that outperform the United States in school achievement offer less class time but "far more in professional development. … That's one of the reasons I support early release on Wednesdays — to give teachers more time to hone their craft."

The releases will be scheduled for the last Wednesday of each month, except in December, April and May. The move is expected to save about $200,000 during the year in the cost of hiring substitute teachers, who in recent years have filled in for teachers when they attend professional development sessions.

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Contact Dan DeWitt at Follow @ddewitttimes.