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Half-cent sales tax a focus of superintendent's town hall meetings

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Published:   |   Updated: December 12, 2013 at 06:40 PM

BROOKSVILLE - School Superintendent Lori Romano concluded a series of town hall meetings this week, which were partially scheduled to receive feedback from residents about where they would like to see a local half-cent sales tax spent.

The half-cent sales tax sunsets December 2014, and the Hernando County School District stands to lose $7.1 million annually if it's not renewed.

The sales tax proceeds must be used for fixed capital expenditures or fixed capital costs associated with the construction or improvement of school facilities and campuses with "a useful life-expectancy of five or more years," as well as any land acquisition, land improvement, design, and engineering costs associated with such facilities and campuses.

But school board members have the option to revise that referendum language to include other expenditures, notably recent technology upgrades heavily-mandated by the state.

"We as a community need to decide why computer technology is important," Romano said to a crowd of 30 Wednesday evening at Central High School. "What does that mean for instructional delivery?"

While the community might not agree over the meaning or importance of computer-based testing and instruction, what is better understood is the short- and long-term costs associated with technology.

Among the potential uses of the half-cent sales tax revenue are expenses stemming from a Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, which Florida recently joined.

The average cost per student for computer-based testing under PARCC's assessment model is $29.50, or about $650,000 annually for Hernando County, which PARCC contends is about the same cost as current state tests.

Romano cautioned at the town hall meeting Wednesday that computer-based technologies are only as valuable as the instructional approaches they're used for.

She said if the technologies are used effectively, they have the potential to better monitor student progress, and amalgamate student trends such as learning gaps, which teachers can use to modify their teaching approaches and improve test results.

Parents voiced concern at the meeting over whether those technologies would be distributed fairly across the district, since newer schools are widely perceived as having better computers and instructional technologies than older schools, and receive favorable treatment by the school board.

Romano recognized "inequities" in the situation, she said, adding that she will compile all the feedback she's received during the town hall meetings into an executive summary, and present it to the board.

More in line with its current ballot language, Romano and board members have proposed allocating prospective sales tax revenues to maintenance and repair of school sites and facilities.

Romano noted Wednesday some buildings, for example, are only running at 32 percent capacity.

"Those are really expensive buildings to run," she said.

Among other spending areas specifically mentioned was a partial return to so-called courtesy busing within two miles of zoned schools, which Transportation Director Doug Compton estimates would cost around $1.4 million to restore in full.

Compton was not director in 2011 when the school board agreed to eliminate transportation for more than 3,000 students who live within 2 miles of school.

Meanwhile, the department's Pupil Transportation Services budget increased by $823,648 this year compared to last and transportation employees received salary, benefit, and insurance increases this year.

Romano expressed during her most recent town hall and school board meetings that administrative and instructional staff are over-maxed at times, and that the school district should offer them competitive salaries in order to retain the most qualified and quality workers.

mreinig@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5271

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