by KATHRYN DENTATO
Hernando Sun Reporter
Heather Martin, Deputy Superintendent, and Joyce McIntyre, Director of Finance, met with the School Board members to talk about the district’s need to increase millage rates, the proposed amount(s), how the money would be used, and the timing of a vote by the citizens.
Gus Guadagnino recommended placing the referendum on the ballot for a general election. Cost for promotion can run up to $400,000. The accountability of the Half-Cent Sales Tax Committee could be a benefit in gaining the community’s trust and approval, Guadagnino said.
Martin said the District would need the proposed 1 mill increase to last four years to cover operational expenses. By consensus, the Board members agreed to the four-year time frame. A portion of the revenue could cover salary and positions as supplements, Martin said, and would be negotiated in a bargaining session.
Superintendent John Stratton said the list proposed by his team identified priorities they saw but could be adjusted by the Board. Martin stated the anticipated revenue is approximately $10 million annually.
Jimmy Lodato expressed concern for voter participation and recommended the general election ballot as the better time.
Stratton recommended using general categories (safety, mental health, staffing) rather than listing specific items or needs. The district’s needs may change before an election.
Salaries and Positions
This category would use 75% of the revenue. With 40-50 empty positions, recruiting and retaining staff is a primary concern for Stratton due to competition from other school districts and the private sector.
Regarding mental health needs, the district has one social worker for every two schools. Martin said the goal is to place a social worker in every school.
The district spends $1.3 million above the State’s funds to provide an SRO in every school. Other changes related to school hardening are pending. Additional State funding will be provided when the Governor approves it.
Board Chair Susan Duval referred to the annual report describing safety deficiencies at district schools. The cost is more than $6 million. Duval asked if some of the projects could be covered by the millage increase. Martin said the district has used $200,000 toward Life Safety projects, and this year doubled it. For some of the identified deficiencies, the problem is not just money, she said, but resources.
Martin acknowledged that little has been done to address the items on the report and some items are included on the safety list, but in general terms. The list of safety deficiencies is an ongoing, revolving one where new items replace those that are fixed or enhanced. Duval indicated she would push to include wording for monies to be used to reduce safety deficiencies.
Linda Prescott discussed transportation needs. Stratton agreed with Prescott but said it could involve purchasing additional buses and hiring drivers. At the end of four years, what does the district do then?
Lodato asked about replacing student computers. Martin agreed that they are outdated and some of the money could be used to update a small number of student computers, but those are generally done through capital improvements.
Stratton suggested that the Board engage a consultant to “tell the story” and promote and market the millage increase to the public. The fee for one consultant recommended to Stratton from another district was $3500 - $6500 monthly for six months. Because the promotion would be limited to the millage increase only, the fee could be $3500 - $4500 per month.
The Board asked Martin to look locally for a consultant, someone who knows the area and the needs of the district better than an outside firm. With a general election more than a year away, the cost quoted above would be difficult to justify.
Lodato referred to the number of volunteers who worked on the Half-Cent Sales Tax campaign, all local talent, all individuals who love Hernando County. “It was the heartbeat of the community,” he said. Guadagnino agreed, saying that each person had their own networks which helped.
Duval said someone who lives here would be the best resource for the campaign. “Public perception about hiring consultants is not always positive,” Prescott said. “Especially when you’re asking for money and you’re spending a lot of money hiring [consultants].”
A six-month long contract was what Stratton had in mind for the consultant but agreed that a local person or firm could be better suited for this campaign. Prescott and Kay Hatch suggested an outside consultant could be hired briefly, only to take “a birds eye view.”
Using the Half-Cent Sales Tax as an example, Duval said the public needs to see a comprehensive list of reasons for the millage increase and a committee to manage the funds received. The millage increase funds will pay for recurring costs, Martin said, in salaries, in mental health professionals, but not necessarily in safety.
Safety items are usually considered a one-time expense. At the proposed 1 mill rate, the amount generated would be approximately $1 million toward safety.
“We have real needs. We’re not trying to sell a used car. We’re selling the future of our kids with this, and our staff,” Duval said.
Prescott expressed concern over voter turnout from “snowbirds” and preferred a March election date. Hernando County may also have a tax increase on the ballot, she said. Voters might feel they had to choose between the two increases, and not vote for both.
Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson addressed the Board. Vote by mail ballots are mailed by February 1 no matter where the person lives, she said. If a resident is in Hernando County, then the ballot is not mailed. The Board will not be charged a fee for adding a referendum to the ballot. The item would need to be provided to her office no later than 06/20/20.
The consensus of the Board was to move forward with a referendum for the November 2020 election. Martin stated the next time the item is brought to a workshop they can discuss the percentages for each category and how many categories.
Because these are operational expenses, the increase will be effective for four years.
Lodato suggested working with the County to promote and push for both campaigns to be successful so the needs of both can be met. Regarding hearing from consultants, Lodato offered to provide names of local individuals who could give ideas on marketing to the Board. These would in addition to the consultant referred to Stratton.