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Pasco School Board frets budget cuts

Superintendent Kurt Browning says the administration is looking at all areas to maintain a ‘tight’ spending plan.
 
This is what viewers saw when they tuned in for the Pasco School Board's May 5, 2020, board meeting.
This is what viewers saw when they tuned in for the Pasco School Board's May 5, 2020, board meeting. [ Pasco County school district ]
Published May 6, 2020|Updated May 6, 2020

At first blush, the news sounded positive.

Pasco County’s Value Adjustment Board expected to approve a countywide property tax roll of $27.4 billion, up about $2 billion from the year before, School Board vice chairman Allen Altman told his colleagues Tuesday.

In ordinary years, that would bode well for the coming year’s budget.

But that figure is just a small part of the picture, Altman quickly added.

Commercial real estate values are expected to tank about 20 percent, he said. And tax revenue statewide, which figures largely in school districts’ bottom line, is dropping precipitously.

New state revenue figures for April are due on May 25.

“We need to start talking budget cuts,” Altman said.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong shared the concerns.

She noted that school board leaders across Florida have talked about how the Legislature approved a budget, still unsigned by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that would boost teacher pay. If that goes forward alongside the shrinking income stream, she said, tough decisions will have to be made.

“To pay the raises, there might have to be a reduction in allocations,” Armstrong said.

She added that the Legislature might not return to Tallahassee to discuss the budget until late fall, to see the full effect of Covid-19 on taxes. If that happens, it could result in budget reductions from the state to districts after the fiscal year has started.

Districts begin their new budget cycle July 1. They are required to have their spending plans formalized by September.

“We should be prepared,” board member Alison Crumbley added.

That in mind, Armstrong proposed having the board resume its in-person meetings on May 19. The board had its Tuesday conversation as part of a telephone conference call meeting, and Armstrong suggested that such gatherings do not allow for effective discussion.

At past conference call meetings, she said, “I felt we curtailed discussion to get through the meeting.”

Other board members resisted the idea, saying the timing did not seem right yet to abandon all the social distancing rules they put in place during the governor’s stay at home order. But they agreed that the board works better when face to face.

“We will have important conversations coming up for sure, and these are, I agree, better off done in person,” said Crumbley, the strongest proponent for conference call meetings during the pandemic.

The board decided to meet at a distance May 19, and reconsider at that time.

Superintendent Kurt Browning assured the board that his team has been working on budget plans throughout the spring, and will have information about proposed reductions in departments and district-wide for upcoming sessions — whether on phone or in the board room.

“We know that it’s going to be tight,” he said, “and we’re being very cautious.”

He did not mention any specific spending cuts being reviewed.