BROOKSVILLE — Despite a less-than-rosy financial picture heading into the next fiscal year, Hernando County school board members Tuesday approved a tentative budget that includes a slight reduction in the property tax rate.
In the first of two public hearings on the budget, members voted to lower the tax rate from the current $7.28 per $1,000 of assessed property value to roughly $7.17 for fiscal year 2014-15.
That translates to a $537.53 tax bill for education — $8.47 less than last year — for someone whose home has an assessed value of $100,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption.
School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino said raising more revenue from property taxes probably wouldn’t sit well with voters this year because they will be asked by referendum in the November general election to approve a one-cent Penny for Projects sales tax hike.
“We would be asking to take money out of a person’s right pocket as well as their left,” Guadagnino said.
The school board chairman said he wasn’t convinced that a decrease, albeit slight, to the tax rate was logical while the district struggles with an uncertain future. But he said he placed his trust in district chief financial officer George Gall and his budget staff, whose job it is to crunch the numbers to arrive at a balanced scorecard.
“He’s taking more of a business approach than a government approach,” Guadagnino said.
Gall laid out the challenges facing the board at the outset. The school district has had four consecutive years of general fund budget deficits. Projected capital projects, technology requirements and debt service over the next four years exceed $200 million. Without a balanced budget, it will be difficult to find the resources necessary to improve the learning environment for students, he said.
Gall and staffers presented the board with several revenue-producing options that members will now consider during the next several weeks.
Those options include hiring an energy manager with a salary of about $68,000.
Sean Arnold, director of facilities, maintenance and security, said such a move could save the district $112,000-$202,000 annually.
Arnold said educating employees about energy conservation, such as turning off the lights in a classroom that is not in use, could save thousands.
Staff will also explore grant funding to pay for the installation of solar arrays on the roofs of school buildings.
The board asked staff to look into tweaking teacher staffing allocations, which could result in cost savings of $1 million to $1.1 million at the high school level and $1.2 million to $1.3 million for middle school and K-8 classes.
The board did not act on a proposal to implement a minimum class size of 15 students, excluding ESE students.
One option to impose a one-day, unpaid furlough for all full-time employees and save the district about $100,000 wasn’t met with enthusiasm by school board members.
“It’s just not right,” School board member Cynthia Moore said.
School Superintendent Lori Romano said she is reluctant also but it is better than the alternative of possible employee layoffs.
“I don’t want to have someone lose a job,” she said.
Chairman Gus Guadagnino said if the board did not take any action on the furlough, “we are going to be cutting positions.”
The board was also not enthusiastic about imposing a property tax levy for two years to maintain safe and energy-efficient operations.
Other cost-cutting options include:
♦ Review all vacant positions — excluding core instructional employees, principals and other positions considered essential — and determine which jobs to eliminate and which to put on hold until after the 10-day school count at the beginning of the school year.
♦ Change the definition of full-time employees from a minimum of 20 hours per week to 30 hours for new employees.
♦ Reduce teacher absenteeism and usage of substitutes by 10 percent, which could save the district $100,000 to $140,000.
The second and final public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 16.