In blessing this year’s school system budget of more than $1 billion at its final public hearing, the Polk County School Board raised ad valorem taxes by almost a half a mill. The property taxes were hiked from last year’s 7.492 mills to 7.547 mills.
The tax hike was needed despite months of budgetary wrangling to bring the budget out of the red and into the black. Earlier this year when budget preparation began, the board faced an $18 million shortfall, which new Superintendent of Schools Kathryn Leroy and her staff have managed to chip away to bring the books back into balance. Even though the books are square, and have the state mandatory 3 percent contingency/emergency fund, the budget still falls short of the 5 percent the board’s own policies require.
“We have challenges,” said School Board Chairman Hazel Sellers, “But we have a plan to get ourselves back on track.”
Leroy has focused the budget on increasing student achievement, providing extra help for those students with reading problems, laying the groundwork for the new Common Core standards to be implemented statewide and for providing the extra help the systems’ six low-grade schools need.
Leroy said that the budget paring will be an ongoing process and she will be looking to all district employees to see where money can be saved and will welcome community comment on the budget’s efficiency.
Included in the budget are some $16.6 million in state funds that are earmarked solely for salary increases for teachers and principals. Another $2.2 million will go to the county’s charter schools.
The system expects expenditures to hover at $731 million — most from local property taxes, the state and federal governments. The remainder is comprised of grants and income from other sources.
That 7.54 mills means a property owner will pay $7.54 per $1,000 of assessed value, meaning a home valued at $100,000 less exemptions would generate $565.50 for the school’s coffers. The school levy for the same property last year was $562.
The budget is based on a total student enrollment of 95,330 students which generates $6,648 in state money per student. The board also employs 13,148 people, 6,568 are teachers and the remainder are administrators, district staff or other non-instructional personnel. There will be no state funds for capital outlay projects or maintenance.
Also included in the budget is $32 million in impact fees generated by new home construction throughout the county. Earlier reports indicated some conflict with the Board of County commissioners over how those impact fees should be spent, but, according to District Operations Director Greg Rivers, that has been clarified to both the board and the commission’s satisfaction.
“All their concerns have been put to rest,” relayed School Board Member Hugh Berryman. “It’s all copacetic.”
Rivers said the county’s concern appeared to be one of transparency and accountability.
“We agreed to do an annual report for the board (commissioners) and they will maintain the funds in their accounts until we need them. We just have to go to them with a plan and we’ll get the funds.”
An issue with the county appeared to be where the impact funds were to be spent.
“We don’t have to spend the fees in the area in which they are generated,” Rivers explained. “We can spend those funds anywhere in the district we need to.”