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County school board to vote on tax swap, budget cuts

BRADENTON — Manatee County property owners will not see an increase in school taxes this fall under a proposal from the superintendent of schools. That’s because district officials have found a way to offset a proposed school tax increase that the school board could approve next week.

The school district collects property taxes for two distinct funds — one for capital projects and another for operating expenses. Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal will propose that the school board raise the millage for operating expenses by .25 mills while at the same time reducing the millage for capital projects by the same amount.

“That’s a break even for taxpayers,” McGonegal said Monday.

The district would then offset the reduction in property taxes for capital expenses by selling surplus property, including land adjacent to its administrative building on Manatee Avenue West, where a Checkers restaurant used to be, and an out parcel of land at the new Manatee Technical Institute site off State Road 70.

“The sale of this property, along with savings we have achieved on construction projects, will allow us to lower the capital outlay millage from 1.50 mills to 1.25 mills in 2010-11,” McGonegal said.

The decrease of .25 mills will offset the new school tax, he said.

“We can’t simply move money from capital to operational,” said school board Chairwoman Jane Pfeilsticker. “The deficit we have is in operational. If we obtain revenue to the capital side, possibly by selling some assets, we could then decrease millage on the capital side. This should result in no net increase in overall tax dollar output on the part of most taxpayers.”

Last July, lawmakers gave Florida school districts the opportunity to levy the .25 optional critical needs millage. Although the millage was levied by 43 districts in 2009-10, the Manatee school district did not adopt the tax.

The new school tax, McGonegal said, is now needed to close a more than $9 million shortfall in the 2010-11 budget.

If approved, it would bring in an extra $6.4 million in revenue to avoid cutting classes, including gym, art and music, in the district. If the board does not approve it, the district would also have to eliminate media specialists at elementary schools, slash some school resources officers or make employees take seven furlough days, school officials said.

The school district already has cut $44 million from its annual operating budget during the past two school years. Cuts stem from sharp declines in state funding caused by reduced state sales tax collections and decreasing property values.

On McGonegal’s list for recommended cuts for the 2010-11 school year: hiring some high school teachers for the first semester only, saving $440,000; eliminating district office positions ($750,000); and seeking advertising for the interior of school buses ($100,000).

Initially on his proposed list: reducing substitute teacher and aide pay by $7 per day ($261,000), Substitutes make $85 per day, he said.

But on Monday, he said he’d nixed that possibility.

For the 2010-2011 school year, the district faces an additional expense of $4 million to hire about 85 more teachers to comply with the class-size amendment, which limits the student size in classrooms.

Last year, the district worked with a $706.8 million budget. The general operating budget was $325 million.

The school board is set to vote on the proposed cuts and the new tax Monday at the district’s administration building, 215 Manatee Ave. W.

If the new tax is approved, it would appear on tax bills sent out in November, said Jim Drake, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance.