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Hernando school board struggles to find funding for busing program

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Published:   |   Updated: March 8, 2014 at 05:32 PM

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BROOKSVILLE - A majority of school board members said Tuesday they would give a portion of their salaries to help pay for an estimated $250,000 in new hires and competitive raises needed for a partial return to so-called courtesy busing.

Among the board members who said they would be willing to offer up a portion of their roughly $33,500 salaries, if it would help, were Matt Foreman, Cynthia Moore and Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino.

Board member John Sweeney said it's a good idea to consider, and Dianne Bonfield said she would want to see more information first.

Board members' offer to help fund added staffing costs shows their commitment to bringing back busing service for students who live within 2 miles of school just two years after they voted to cut the program. At the time, board members were reacting to the state's decision not to fund courtesy busing.

Still, board members were not able to find funding to bring the service back during a recent board meeting and are hoping Hernando commissioners will reverse course on the district's proposal to reinstate education impact fees.

If not, Hernando County residents may face higher taxes to free up the general fund to fund other programs, including busing, which is estimated to cost millions more than when it was eliminated.

Board members have proposed a ballot measure to renew a half-cent sales tax and have explored the possibility of increased millage rates on property taxes.

The half-cent sales tax would apply to capital expenditures only.

The district estimates all three revenue sources, if enacted, would generate more than $111 million for the district in five years, and more than $222 million in 10 years.

Along with busing, the money is needed for repairs to schools and other facilities and state-mandated tech requirements for computer-based testing.

The cost for the return of courtesy busing is estimated at $7.5 million, up to $250,000 of which would be spent on staff, said Transportation Director Doug Compton.

The district saved a little more than $2 million by eliminating the busing.

If the program returns, the district will have to spend between $1 million and $2.5 million to buy new buses after the transportation department sold the 43 buses for $250,000 when the cuts were made.

Foreman said during a board workshop Tuesday that the board has voted in the past to commit to future expenses when the district did not yet have funding for them.

"We have the ability to implement, but understand we're going to have to bite the bullet one way or the other," he said. "If the sales tax doesn't pass, this board is going to have to make a commitment to raise (funding) ... It's reality. It's what no one wants to say but needs to be said."

Foreman said he thinks one of the ways to stimulate economic development is by improving schools, and he is hopeful voters will pass the sales tax during the upcoming election.

"The majority of our community realizes where that money is going," he said.

Guadagnino said he thinks it is the board's responsibility to take care of the district's immediate problems with respect to busing students.

"I'm sure the funds are going to come through one way or another ... so to me it's not a hard decision," said Guadagnino. "It would destroy me if we didn't do this because of funding, and some dirt bag rapes one of our kids or if one of our kids gets killed because we didn't do this."

Moore agreed with both Foreman and Guadagnino, saying the board needs to make a decision about the buses now, so that the transportation department has time to place an order in for the buses this coming August.

"We have to find the money somewhere," said Moore, who is also a volunteer at Brooksville Elementary. "You see the children come in on rainy days because they walked, and they have to sit in that all day."

The board voted, with the exception of Moore, to table their discussion until March 11 after county commissioners vote to either eliminate or extend a moratorium on education impact fees.

mreinig@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5271

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