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School District to sue Board of County Commissioners over half-cent sales tax referendum dispute

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On Tuesday, May 17, the Hernando County School Board in a special meeting voted unanimously to approve initiating a lawsuit against the Hernando Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). This vote was brought about because last week the BOCC denied the school board’s request to have the extension of the half-cent surtax placed on the ballot this November.

As it stands now, the referendum on the extension of the half-cent surtax will be placed on the ballot in November of 2024 unless the BOCC changes its mind. The school board wanted to have it put to a vote this year so they could be proactive in planning their budget to account for an expected large influx of residents into the county during the next two years.

This growth will be mostly due to the county approving 11,000 new housing units, bringing an estimated 3,700 new students to district schools. This does not even include people moving into the area and purchasing pre-owned homes.

According to a memorandum issued by the school board, there are existing projects that need to be budgeted for, such as replacing worn-out air conditioning and heating systems, as well as roof replacements. Also, the school board needs to plan and budget for increased classroom space in many of the schools, as well as the possibility of building at least one new school.

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The school board emphasizes that “it is important to note that placing the renewal on the 2022 ballot does not mean there is an additional sales tax. Instead, 2022 voters will have the opportunity to approve the renewal of the tax to start in January 2026, after the current half-cent sales tax ends.” This will give them more of a cushion to plan and fund projects.

The school board memorandum cited above also stated that “the school district will present a plan for growth and a list of capital needs to the voters. Should voters approve the renewal in 2022, the school district would be assured that large projects currently in the 5-year work plan would go uninterrupted and, when needed, the district could bond against sales tax funds to build a new school.”

School Superintendent John Stratton reiterated this in stating, “We will certainly need to build schools to accommodate growth and, without adequate impact fees, the sales tax is the next best way to do that. There is no other revenue stream available to build schools. It takes at least three years to build a school and those 3,700 students will be here well before then.”

Gregg Laskoski is chairman of the Half-Cent Sales Tax Accountability Committee, a group of volunteer citizens that oversee the school board’s spending of this tax. He spoke at last week’s BOCC meeting and encouraged the BOCC to be a partner with the school district in developing a plan of “cooperative and managed growth.”

While the County Commission believes they have the authority to block the district’s request, Laskoski asked, “Is that the right thing to do? I trust the voters, and I hope you do the same.”
At that same meeting, Superintendent Stratton said. “The Commissioners complimented our fiscal integrity with our half-cent funds.”

Three members of the audience that attended the May 17 meeting spoke up about this issue during the time designated for public comments.

Vincent LaBorante, president of the Hernando County Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA) stated that he and the members of the teachers union are in favor of the school board moving forward with the lawsuit. He said that many of the repairs that need to be made are safety issues for the teachers and the students.

“I get phone calls daily about cracks in ceilings, cracks in walls, pavement cracks,” LaBorante stated.

Vincent LaBorante, HCTA President supports moving forward with the lawsuit against the BOCC in order to get the half cent sales tax on the 2022 ballot.
Vincent LaBorante, HCTA President supports moving forward with the lawsuit against the BOCC in order to get the half cent sales tax on the 2022 ballot. Photo by Sarah Nachin.

Ken Mayon, a six-year resident of Spring Hill, who has a daughter in middle school, spoke out against the lawsuit.

“I’m not against you having money for schools and whatever you need. I’m against this [lawsuit] because the people who got voted in [the BOCC] made a decision and you need to live with it just like we have to live with it when you make your decisions,” Mayon stated.

He also commented that bringing the lawsuit forward will set a precedent.

“What happens when you [the school board] don’t do something that they [the BOCC] wants you to do and they send legal counsel your way to try and force you to do something you don’t want to do?”

April Johnson-Spence has two children in public schools. She spoke in favor of the school board moving forward with the lawsuit. She stated that giving the voters a chance to vote this year to continue the half-cent surtax is a good idea.

“If the voters agree, then you can bond for a new school. If they do not then you’ll have time to come up with a plan for other resources or appropriations. Some of our schools are at full capacity and over. Can you imagine trying to plan a capital improvement project as big as a school with only a two years’ notice on what the budget is going to be?” Johnson-Spence stated.

“The school district and the county should be working together for the needs of the community and not fighting each other in regards to our comprehensive plan.”

After the citizen input, school board member Susan Duval put forth the motion, “to authorize the superintendent to work with Mr. Alfonso [the school board’s attorney] and to seek local counsel for litigating the School Board versus the Board of County Commissioners. Co-counsel and consultation may be proffered on an as-needed basis.”

Kay Hatch seconded the motion. During the discussion period while the motion was on the table school board member Jimmy Lodato stated, “It is sad that we have to move in this direction with all the…harmony we have tried to instill in the community and the fact that all we are doing is asking the community to vote on this, but I feel that we have… zero choice.”

The motion passed unanimously.

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