Concern about reserve fund prompts 3-2 split.
The Sarasota School Board voted to advance a proposed tax rate and a 2019-20 budget of nearly $874 million on Tuesday.
Board members Eric Robinson and Bridget Ziegler voted against the budget, which totals $873,677,822, excluding transfers among funds, and members Jane Goodwin, Shirley Brown and Caroline Zucker voted in favor.
Ziegler and Robinson opposed the budget and said it relies too heavily on reserve funds. To cover expenses in this budget, $5.56 million will be pulled from reserves. In doing so, the district is expected to fall below its self-imposed reserve fund minimum of 7.5% of total revenue. State regulations, however, require a smaller reserve: 3% of revenue.
Zucker said the school district budget had to increase to account for issues including decreased state funding from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and a requirement that Public Education Capital Outlay funds be allocated to charter schools.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has gone from an allocation of $1,954 per student in 2012-13 to $1,315 per student in 2019-20, leaving the local budget to make up the difference. PECO funds totaling $150 million were allocated solely to charter schools for 2019-20. Last year, the district received more than $767,000 in PECO funding for wider use.
Robinson said if the board does need more money, it could consider a millage increase.
“If the board chose, they could go and ask the citizens, ‘Do you want to be taxed more?’” Robinson said. “I’d rather you go and ask the citizens than Tallahassee because they’re the ones who are actually going to be stroking the checks. It’s their pocketbooks.”
Sarasota County citizens pay a self-imposed 1-mill rate that was originally approved in the 2002-03 school year and most recently renewed in 2018. That mill contributes to the district’s overall millage rate of 6.943 per $1,000 of taxable value.
That rate has decreased from last year’s of 7.003, which makes it the sixth consecutive year of decrease, though property values rose by 6.1% in the last year.
This means the owner of a property with a $200,000 taxable value would pay $1,388.60, compared with $1,400.60 the previous year.
The general fund budget is nearly $484 million, up $19 million, or 4.1%, from last year.
The district will allocate more than $80 million toward capital projects, including Pine View School renovations and new classrooms at Gocio Elementary.
Because PECO funds were redirected to charter schools, construction projects are funded almost entirely by local dollars. Attorney Dan Lobeck, who spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting, said that because the capital improvement fund is seeing a decrease from state revenue, the board should look at increasing impact fees.
Impact fees are assessed on new developments to pay for their effect on county services because of increased demand. Money collected from the fees must be used on capital improvements.
The impact fee for new building permits stands at $2,032 for single-family homes, $561 per unit for multifamily homes and $188 for mobile homes, to be paid at the time of certificate of occupancy.
The district has not reevaluated its impact fees since 2016, and the fee for single-family homes has stayed the same since 2004. Lobeck said if these numbers were to increase — rather than tax dollars — the district would be better situated for future growth.
“You need more money for addressing the needs of growth, and what are you going to do, put it on the back of taxpaying citizens?” Lobeck said. “It needs to be the No. 1 priority to bring impact fees up to where they should be and make growth pay its own way.”
Zucker agreed with Lobeck and stated the increased fees could help address issues of capacity and new construction.
“We started with them being very low with the understanding that we would eventually increase them, and I think now is the time we should be looking at increasing,” Zucker said.
However, Superintendent Todd Bowden said he has no plans to revisit impact fees unless directed to by the board.
In September, the board will give final consideration to the budget and the tax rate after property owners have received notice.