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School Board discusses how to secure funding to improve school safety

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Following the Marjory-Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida, officials passed legislation requiring counties to harden school security and make schools safer.  Specific details of what is to be done “remains in the shade,” according to School Board Chairman Mark Johnson,  since security strategies are the focus.  The board elected to hold an “in-the-shade meeting,” where they will discuss the specific items and costs in order to increase school safety, expected to start at $22-million.

Hernando County School District Superintendent Dr. Lori Romano doesn’t see any way around the funding problem without a tax increase, and asked that the referendum be put on the November 2018 ballot. Speaking for the taxpayers, school board member Beth Narverud said “The issue is, ‘when will it stop?’”  In 2012, voters approved a ½ cent tax, however, those funds cannot be used legally for the new mandate.  “Every time we get money, we need more money.”
Vice Chair Linda Prescott is sure that the voters are aware of the problem.  “Every day, there’s another shooting somewhere.  Very sadly, this is … doing the marketing for us.”  

Director of Finance & Purchasing Joyce McIntyre along with Financial Advisor Brent Wilder of Public Financial Management (PFM) presented funding options to the school board at the April 24, 2018 meeting.  Wilder described the problem as a “… another unfunded mandate from the state,” and went on to describe funding sources, and the differences between them.  

There is $720,000 available to the county in the form of a state grant that the school board would need to apply for.   Recent discussions with the Board of County Commissioners regarding School Resource Officers (SROs) produced the amount needed per year for the school improvements to be approximately $2.6-million per year, and at present, the county schools have around half of that amount available.

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To obtain funding, a Capital Outlay Millage of 1.50 mills would be considered.  If the millage rate is increased for two years, the HCSB can use funds for capital or operating expenses.  In order to increase the rate for four years, the board can use the funds for operational expenses only.   Other funding sources rely on the increase of sales tax by ½ to 1 cent.   Impact fees and other referenda options are being considered as well.

According to McIntyre, extending the ½ cent sales tax over ten years will yield roughly $10.3-million per year, totalling around $103-million.  Considering millage rate increases, a 1 mill increase over four years would result in $38-million, and 2 mills would yield $76-million.  According to Wilder, it would be possible to renew a two-year millage rate at the end of the term, to allow for spending on capital expenses, which would fall under the purview of the school safety initiative.

Hernando County School District Superintendent Dr. Lori Romano said that the Director of Safety and Security Bill Hall, along with local law enforcement assessed the schools under her direction after the Parkland shooting.  Without giving details as Johnson cautioned earlier, the board discussed the publicly available list of improvements available including: securing entrances, checkpoint construction, lighting specifically designed for entry security, cameras, automatic locks and locking devices, electronic security systems, fencing designed to prevent intruder entry into buildings and bulletproof glass.  There are additional provisions in the mandate that allow for further improvements when approved by the office for School Safety.

The Florida Department of Education (DOE) will have a specific system in place to monitor the progress of school improvements with regard to the safety items.

Looking into the future, Chairman Johnson considered the new housing developments and growth of the county requiring at least one new school to be built, and posed the idea of waiting for the next legislative session to find out if additional state funding may possibly be available.  

Romano said that increasing taxes, especially during an election year is never a pleasant conversation, however she sees no other way to accomplish the state’s requirements.  The deadline to get a referendum on the November ballot is June 22, 2018.

Between now and that date, the board plans to survey other school districts for ideas.  Gus Guadagnino cautioned “We need to compare apples to apples.  You can’t go to a big county with a lot of money to compare (that) with what we have.”

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