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School board budget hearing Tuesday

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Property owners' tax bills affected by millage rate discussion

By Jenna McKenna

Levy County property owners might want to free up a few hours this coming Tuesday evening. At 5:01 p.m. on July 28, the Levy County School Board will hold its first public hearing on the 2009-2010 budget, including the proposed property tax millage for the coming year. In this past Tuesday's meeting of the school board, Finance Director Bob Clemons laid out two possible options for the coming year's budget ? one that holds the millage at essentially the same level as last year (7.75 mills for 09-10 vs. 7.74 for 08-09), or one that substantially lowers the millage to 7.50, below the 2007-08 level of 7.54. A mill equals one dollar per thousand dollars of property value. Clemons explained his expectation of the potential impact on property owners with an example of an “average” property valued at about $130,000 in 2009-2010. With Option One of the proposed budget, which reduces the millage rate to 7.50, the owner of the $130,000 home would pay about $791 in property taxes for school funding. With Option Two of the proposals, which holds the rate at 7.75 mills, the same homeowner would pay about $817, a difference of less than $30. “We anticipate that the average property owner, under Option Two, will pay about $20 to $25 more than with Option One,” Clemons said. There are two millage options this year because the state legislature has given all Florida school districts a limited window to hold the millage at last year's rate rather than let it decline. Districts have additional incentive to choose this option, because if they do, the state will subsidize the school district (in the case of Levy County) with an additional $351,578 over the $515,764 the quarter mill in question is expected to raise from Levy County property owners. Clemons says the board needs to give serious consideration to Option Two, because of a steep decline in the district's funds. In March, the district was warned by the Department of Education that its unencumbered General Fund dollars threatened to fall below three percent of revenues, a sign that the district would be unable to handle unexpected expenses and contingencies. “We put ourselves in a state of urgency ? not emergency ? at that time, but we got through it,” Clemons said. Among the reasons for the decline in money are the increase in cost for nearly all the district's expenses, including the costs of food, fuel and classroom materials. The state has also made reductions in funding for grades 9-12 basic programs and ESE support levels 4 and 5, and made changes to allowed uses for property tax funding, taking away a portion of capital funding and adding those numbers to Required Local Effort (RLE), or money the district is required to raise from its own constituents. Also, contrary to models forecasting the student population for the 2008-09 school year, the county's population and enrollment declined. Since the school district received state funding based on the actual number of students in school, the county lost more money there. Clemons further explained that the way the district got through its period of urgency last spring was through severe belt-tightening measures. “We stopped spending money,” he said. Among the cutbacks was the highly controversial decision to radically cut staff. More than 20 veteran teachers got notices in April that their contracts would not be renewed; by the first week of May, dozens more annual contract teachers received similar notices. Many teachers were nonrenewed because their temporary certifications had expired, and they will be rehired once their licenses are again up to date; others, however, will not. Between the two budget options, Clemons noted that Option One will call for continued austerity and staff reductions (including those already made) of about 70 people. Option two could allow for the rehire of several teachers, calling for total staff reductions of about 62 people, down from last year. Clemons said he did not expect Option Two to be popular in this economy, but noted that for about $30 per average homeowner, the property tax contribution and added money from the state would at least be enough to wipe out the money lost because of last year's decline in enrollment. “I know people want quality schools,” he said.