School Board millage rate falling by 0.33 mills for this tax year

Public hearing on the tentative 2016-17 budget set for 5:15 p.m. on July 26

The Sarasota County School Board sits in session on July 19. Member Bridget Ziegler was absent. Rachel Hackney photo
The Sarasota County School Board sits in session on July 19. Member Bridget Ziegler was absent. Rachel Hackney photo

If the owner of a house assessed at $100,000 in Sarasota County does not see that value go up, the person will pay $33 less in School Board taxes this year than he did last year.

That was the news Al Weidner, deputy chief financial officer of the Sarasota County Schools, provided during the School Board’s July 19 meeting to accept the tentative budget for the next fiscal year.

The likelihood of a lower tax bill from the School Board may be slim, though, he noted, as property values rose countywide again this year. The school district saw its assessed value increase 9.17 percent, Weidner pointed out. Still, at $54,838,821,256 it remains below the $62.7-billion mark of 2007, before the county began realizing the effects of the Great Recession.

On a unanimous vote July 19, the School Board approved advertisement of Superintendent Lori White’s tentative budget for the 2016-17 school year and the proposed millage rates. Because the Florida Legislature is required to fund at least 10 percent of the state’s Education Finance Program, Weidner explained, the local required effort millage rate declined 0.33 mills from last year. The total millage rate proposed for the next fiscal year is 7.433. As a result of the rise in property values, the figure is 2.87 percent higher than the “rolled-back” millage rate for 2015, backup agenda material explains. The “rolled-back” rate refers to the millage level that would reflect no increase in revenue as a result of higher property value assessments.

Al Weidner makes his remarks. Rachel Hackney photo
Al Weidner makes his remarks. Rachel Hackney photo

The district’s total budget for the 2017 fiscal year has declined as well, Weidner noted, because of the decrease in its capital projects fund. The district borrowed money to undertake rebuilding initiatives at Venice and Booker high schools and Suncoast Technical College, he said, “and we have now finally accomplished those projects.”

The Executive Summary Weidner provided in advance of the meeting this week explains that the total of capital projects revenue in the School Board budget has fallen an estimated 38 percent — $63.6 million — from the 2007-08 year to 2016-17. For 2016-17, it is projected to be $101,750,932.

The total of General Fund revenues for 2016-17 is estimated at $403,927,313. And while that has been climbing since the 2012-13 fiscal year, it still remains below the 2007-08 level of $407,746,411.

Weidner further noted that the district will have a surplus of approximately $350,000 in its General Fund at the end of this fiscal year.

For the next fiscal year, he continued, he has budgeted a 10-percent increase in health insurance expenses and a 4-percent uptick for utilities. The latter move, he said, is pegged to Florida Power & Light Co.’s request for “a rather large [rate] increase.”

The district began self-funding its health insurance on Jan. 1, Weidner explained, so the new budget will reflect the first full year of that change as well.

The unassigned fund balance projected for the end of the current fiscal year will have between $37 million and $38 million, reflecting a little over 9 percent of the budget. By the June 30, 2017 end of the next fiscal year, he added, the percentage he estimates for that unassigned fund balance is 8.96 percent.

Mitsi Corcoran, the district’s chief financial officer, has pointed out to The Sarasota News Leader that School Board policy 7.101 provides for a minimum unassigned fund balance of 7.5 percent.

Comparing districts

A chart shows the various millage rates proposed for 2016-17. Image courtesy School Board
A chart shows the various millage rates proposed for 2016-17. Image courtesy School Board

Among other details Weidner discussed in his presentation is that because the Legislature several years ago reduced the district’s capital millage rate from 2 to 1.5, “almost 40 percent of your revenues in the capital fund go to a combination of paying debt” and expenses for general maintenance and equipment. “The amount for building new schools is not all that much when you come down to it.”

The district also incurs regular expenses for painting, repairs and updating technology for teaching, he said.

Nonetheless, School Board Chair Shirley Brown pointed out the overall health of the Sarasota district’s finances, especially in light of her reading about problems in other counties. In the Panhandle, for example, she said, districts are concerned about “the need to build up their reserves again.” News articles have reported that “70 to 80 percent of schools in the state are in need of some maintenance that has been deferred,” she added. “I think our schools are in really good shape, and so is our reserve balance.”

One primary factor for the stability of the Sarasota district, Weidner replied, is the special 1 mill tax that voters have approved every four years since 2002. “That is the lifeblood right now of the school district.” The fact that the Sarasota district is one of only three receiving “A” grades this year from the state “is because of the voted operating millage,” he added.

A pie charts shows total revenues by category. Image courtesy School Board
A pie charts shows total estimated revenues by category. Image courtesy School Board

For the next fiscal year, he said, that tax is expected to bring in about $52 million and pay for 525 positions — all support staff, including art and music teachers and guidance counselors. Ten million dollars of that revenue will pay for the extra 30 minutes of instruction in the school day, Weidner said. “The state only funds a five-hour day.”

Many district financial staff members across the state had thought the Legislature would provide more money for education in this year’s budget, Weidner continued, given Florida’s improved economic health. Yet, the funding support went up only 1 percent, he pointed out.

When taxpayers first approved the Sarasota district’s 1-mill tax in 2002, Weidner continued, the School Board and staff pledged to stop asking for the extra revenue after the Legislature reached the point of providing adequate financial support for education. Yet, lawmakers still have not accomplished that, Weidner said.

Public process

School Board member Caroline Zucker. Rachel Hackney photo
School Board member Caroline Zucker. Rachel Hackney photo

As the next step in approving its 2016-17 fiscal year budget, the School Board will hold a public hearing on the financial plan at 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26.

School Board member Caroline Zucker pointed out this week that she and her colleagues have been working with staff since November 2015 to craft the new budget. By the time the board votes, as it did on July 19, to advertise the financial plan for the next fiscal year, she said, “we’ve already ‘workshopped’ it to death.”

Members of the community have accused the board of “trying to hide something from you all,” she told the audience. Nonetheless, she continued, the only people present for the July 19 session were students participating in a Community Youth Development program, district staff and three reporters. “No one from the community [is here] to discuss their budgeting process or how much we’re spending …”

Zucker also thanked Weidner for his almost 35 years of service with the district. He will be retiring in February 2017. “Believe me,” she said, “I’m not happy about that at all, because you are really fantastic.”

She credited Weidner and Superintendent White with pulling the School Board “through the Great Recession.”

Budget details

A chart shows district staffing trends over the past several years. Image courtesy School Board
A chart shows district staffing trends over the past several years. Image courtesy School Board

Among other facets of the tentative budget’s General Fund, appropriations are expected to rise 2.72 percent, or $11,210,076. The total for appropriations is $423,451,203.

Salaries will rise 1.14 percent, mostly because of the increase in the number of students. Total district enrollment in the 2015-16 school year was 42,784, the General Fund Executive Summary says. For 2016-17, that is projected at 43,492, or 708 more students.

Another note in the document says that since the 2007-08 fiscal year, the district has eliminated 492 positions. The total projected for 2016-17 is 5,356.

The largest single category for appropriations is for instruction — $292,853,615. That covers all activities dealing directly with teaching, the Executive Summary notes.

The district is projected to pay $57,367,498 — or 8 percent of its appropriations — for capital outlay in the 2016-17 year. Along with land purchases, those expenses are for building renovations, library books, audio-visual materials, furniture, fixtures, equipment, computers, vehicles and buses, the Executive Summary says.

The total budgeted for employee benefits is $86,719,821, or 12 percent of appropriations. That figure includes payments to the Florida Retirement System.

Debt service is put at $28,751,250, or 4 percent of expenses.