The Sarasota County School Board completed its annual budget process on Sept. 18 when it adopted its proposed budget of $1.5 billion.
The board voted 4-1 to approve the budget, along with the new millage rate totaling 6.180 mills, with Chair Bridget Ziegler in dissent.
The total millage is down from a total of 6.272 for the 2023 fiscal year. At 6.180 mills, taxpayers will incur $618 in school taxes for every $100,000 of taxable value.
Board members’ votes aligned with their votes on the tentative budget and millage in August.
Ziegler said she was concerned about mental health directives coming from the state that were reflected in the budget, although she believed superintendent Terry Connor was trying to address such concerns.
“I think we have a lot of unraveling to do at the state level. I hope that we can continue to partner with our department of education and the state, and that they are listening that we’re coming forward in a good faith effort,” Ziegler said.
During the tentative budget approval, Ziegler had cited concerns around funds allocated toward social-emotional learning, including more than $56 million assigned to "social-emotional learning and supports provided to students to promote belonging, dignity, and inclusion.”
As a result of the language in the budget, Connor’s strategic plan was subsequently placed on hold.
Board member Tom Edwards said today’s climate in public education applies increased scrutiny to programs. However, he said he has never encountered any initiatives not in the best interest of students or families.
“Because the climate has tightened, I would caution rhetoric that says that programming can be brought in for ulterior motives. That concerns me,” he said.
Vice Chair Karen Rose said she wanted to see the district move forward with the pieces Connor had put in place, including an increased focus on “academic excellence.” She said she was confident that if any pieces exist not in compliance with legislation, they would be corrected.
“Roughly 30% of our students cannot read at grade level, and as a board we are accountable for that, and I feel like we are on a very positive trajectory with the reorganization that superintendent Connor has implemented," she said.
Board member Robyn Marinelli said although she had issues with laws coming from the state level, stating that some programs in the district “have no point,” she did not want to send the wrong message to the community by not approving the budget.
“If I have a problem, and I do, with some of the things that are coming down from the state, I’m not going to have our district pay the price for some things that come down,” she said.
Board member Tim Enos said the budget can be amended at any time, praising the work of staff on the current version.
“Obviously, when we look to the superintendent and the accountability is that it can be amended at any time, so if we see something that we need to transfer money because of … then that’s something that I know that we can still do,” he said.
Following the other board members’ comments, Edwards challenged Marinelli to bring forward a list of programs she did not think were in the best interest of students.