Critical needs tax approved by school board

BRADENTON — Homeowners could see a tax increase on their bill this fall — but by less than a buck a month.

In a 4-1 vote, the Manatee County school board on Monday approved Superintendent Tim McGonegal’s proposal to raise the millage for operating expenses by .25 mills while at the same time reducing the millage for capital projects by the same amount. Board member Bob Gause dissented.

The school district collects property taxes for two distinct funds — one for operating expenses and another for capital projects.

The new tax, which lawmakers gave Florida school districts the opportunity to levy last July, is to avoid classroom cuts this upcoming school year and will bring in an extra $6.4 million in revenue. It would help close a nearly $9 million shortfall in the upcoming 2010-11 school year’s budget.

Had the board not approved the new tax the district would have had to eliminate elective classes, including gym, art and music. It would also have had to nix media specialists at elementary schools, slash six school resources officers or make employees take seven furlough days, McGonegal said.

The board does not need Manatee voter approval to levy the new tax for the 2010-11 school year. But they would need their vote in November to levy it again for the next two school years.

If voters agree to the tax, the board must renew it every year through a super majority vote.

Levying the new tax is not a good idea, Gause told board members.

“I am concerned we will turn public opinion against us and negatively affect our ability to find public funding down the road,” Gause said.

Also Monday, the board vote 4-1 to approve McGonegal’s recommendation for nearly $9 million in budget cuts for the 2010-11 year. Again, Gause dissented.

On McGonegal’s list for recommended cuts for the upcoming school year: hiring some high school teachers for the first semester only, saving $440,000; seeking advertising for the interior of school buses ($100,000) and eliminating district office positions (just over $1 million).

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

McGonegal later nixed that possibility.

For the upcoming 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 number of students in classes.

In addition to assessing the new tax, the school board decreased the capital outlay millage from 1.50 mills to 1.25 mills.

The district offset the reduction in property taxes for capital expenses by planning to sell 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 district is also able to lower the capital outlay by using savings achieved on construction projects, McGonegal said.

The proposed 2010-11 budget is $624.8 million.

The proposed 2010-11 school year millage rate is 7.591 — .05 higher than last year’s rate of 7.541 mills, said Jim Drake, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance. The new assessment would mean a taxpayer with a home valued at $167,000 with a homestead exemption of $25,000 and no change in assessment would pay $1,267.70 in school property taxes — an increase of about $8.35.

The board Monday night also approved McGonegal’s reorganization plan. Under the plan, a slew of positions received raises, which drew some dissension from some residents including Tom Garland. The Bradenton man told board members he was flabbergasted about the potential salary increases.

Most residents, Garland said, make less than the school board members do.

“It’s a recession,” Garland said as about a dozen Manatee Tea Party members in the audience listened.

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.

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

The tentative 2010-11 budget is slated to be approved on Aug. 2. Board members will approve the final budget on Sept. 9.