Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

School Costs on Rise

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

School Costs on Rise

Article excerpt

Looming district deficits raise prospect of increase in property taxes, and more


Despite years of cutting costs to dig the Manatee County School District out of a deep financial hole, looming deficits raise the prospect that higher property taxes, the extension of an optional sales tax, renewed impact fees and a new bond issue will be needed to pay for schools for the next several years, officials said Wednesday.

Even with a projected $16.5 million operating budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, district officials forecast a $30.4 million deficit by the end of the 2015-16 budget year.

Over the next four years, operating costs -- such as paying teachers and buying textbooks -- will exceed district revenues by an average of $62 million each year. Capital requirements, such as maintaining buildings and paying for buses, will exceed revenue by an average of $63 million each year during the same time period.

To close that gap, Superintendent Rick Mills and other district officials argued that the district will need to exercise all of its revenue-raising options. While state law mandates that operating budgets can only receive revenue from property taxes, Florida allows capital budgets to be funded in multiple ways, including sales taxes and impact fees.

Mills, deputy superintendent of operations Don Hall, finance director Rebecca Roberts and board chairman Robert Gause met with the media to explain the district's financial problems, seeking to lay the groundwork for what could be a difficult sell to the public.

"As a state, we're not funding education as we should be in my opinion as a superintendent. We're under-funding education," Mills said. "That said, we have many school districts in Florida, including neighboring school districts that are offsetting that under-funding through referendums that are done to supplement the income of their school districts."

But even with an increase in revenue, Hall said the district would need to make "difficult spending decisions" in the coming years.

He said many of the cost-saving measures available to districts were taken two years ago when Manatee schools decreased spending by about $22 million. Those cuts included laying off hundreds of teachers.

But the cuts the district now must make are more fundamental, Hall said.

"So now we're talking about things that are even more core to the function of an organization, such as how are you going to deal with your health insurance cost, how are you going to deal with your employee compensation, how are you going to deal with workman's compensation," Hall said. "We're not talking about whether we buy this textbook or two or one of those -- we're past that -- we've already crossed that river all those cuts have already been made. We're now down to the bone, the marrow. …

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