by LISA MACNEIL
Commissioners at the BOCC regular meeting on July 14, 2020, voted unanimously to place a referendum for a 1 mill ad valorem tax on the November 3, 2020 ballot. The ballot referendum is to read:
HERNANDO SCHOOL DISTRICT
MILLAGE ELECTION FOR PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS
Shall the School Board of Hernando County Ievy an ad-valorem operating millage of 1 mill annually to 1) attract and retain high - quality teachers and staff with competitive salaries and provide additional staff to support student needs, 2) maintain and increase school safety measures and increase mental health services for students, 3) provide students and staff with devices, resources and support, 4) maintain and increase educational opportunities for all students, and 5) appoint a Citizens Volunteer Millage Committee to review annual spending.
Should the voters be in favor of this measure, the result will be a 1 mill increase in property taxes in Hernando County. Hernando County School Superintendent John Stratton reported that this will equate to approximately $10 per month for a home valued at $150,000. The 1 mill increase is expected to raise around $10 million per year for the school district.
Stratton introduced the referendum to the board, beginning with, “Why do we need this? We're currently in a national teacher shortage and we need to remain competitive to keep our quality teachers. (Governor DeSantis) did thankfully give money towards teacher salaries, but that does not go to all teachers, that primarily goes to beginning teachers and we want to make sure we're retaining our quality veteran teachers as well and those outside of the classrooms that are offering support.”
Citing technology, the recent state mandate for School Resource Officers (SROs), and mental health services, as well as other services and student programs, Stratton described the need as “urgent.” Tax dollars from the millage increase are not able to be used for the building of new schools.
“Our financial house is in order. Our spending is transparent and we will appoint a Citizens Oversight Millage Committee to review our annual spending.”
Commissioner Jeff Holcomb asked Stratton about the existing sales tax portion that is marked for the district. However, the half cent sales tax is specifically slated for capital projects, and the millage increase will be specific to operations and programs Stratton stated at the beginning of the meeting.
In October 2019, the BOCC approved a portion of Impact Fees that the School District requested.
Commissioner John Allocco called the potential millage increase “Frustrating,” during a time when many residents face losing their homes due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in an elevated unemployment rate.
According to County Attorney Garth Coller, an interesting law was passed in 1998, which states that the School District is required to submit to the BOCC any referenda to be placed on the coming ballot, and the BOCC would be in violation of the law if its members voted against the petition. A vote, however, is still required under this law.
Citizen’s Comments are largely submitted by email during the current pandemic. One individual asked about a recent $4.8 million CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act infusion, which Stratton reported is being used, and will continue to be used for the preparation of school buildings for students to return in the fall. These preparations will include personal protective items such as hand sanitizer, but also dehumidifiers and air-quality equipment to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
School Board members Linda Prescott, Kay Hatch, Jimmy Lodato, and Gus Guadagnino were all present and in support of the resolution.