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Housing crunch may hurt schoolhouses

BRADENTON — The struggling housing market may soon affect the schoolhouse near you.

Last year’s falling housing values are expected by Manatee County school district officials to further drive down state coffers, and it’s property tax revenues that go into a school district’s capital funds.

In a budget review committee meeting Tuesday, Manatee County school district officials gave members a preview of how that would affect local schools.

Within a year and a half, the Manatee County property appraiser’s office saw a 10 percent drop in home valuations, said Jim Drake, assistant superintendent of finances.

The capital fund is used to build, renovate and maintain schools, as well as buy technological equipment. This school year, the district has a $342 million capital budget, roughly the same size as its operating budget.

The latter, which pays for salaries, benefits and other items, faces more cuts because of declining state sales tax revenues.

From these projections, the district’s capital funds face a deficit in the next two years, Drake said.

That means maintenance work such as painting and caulking, typical steps to prevent water intrusion or mold, would be scaled back.

“We have to figure how much revenue we have to implement our capital plan,” he said. “If the plan goes in the red ... we lose the ability to do any projects.”

After a growth spurt several years back, the district has been playing catch up by building numerous schools in the county.

In 2002, Manatee County taxpayers approved a half-penny sales tax to be collected over 20 years to help with construction of new schools and the remodeling of older ones.

Now, a majority of the projects on the district’s capital plans are renovations and maintenance of older schoolhouses, Drake said.

Kevin Hennessey, a committee member, asked if the district will go through its list of capital projects, and see if some of the construction work could be deferred.

“It might be good to have to look at the capital budget to consider where we are,” said Bob Gause, school board member and chairman of the committee.