Hillsborough School Board OKs $4 billion budget

Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times/TNS

Hillsborough County property owners will see a lower tax rate this year to support public schools as district leaders navigate an era of rising costs and growing numbers of families opting for nontraditional school choices.

Rising property values mean the taxing rate will drop from $5.56 to $5.40 for every $1,000 in taxable value. That equates to $540 for the owner of a $125,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption. But rising values are likely to push total tax bills higher for many property owners.

The $4.4 billion budget, which the school board approved on Thursday, is up from last year’s total of $4.3 billion. It includes $1.7 billion for instruction.

The district expects its largest pot of state money, the general fund, to show a reserve balance of $336 million, which marks a sizable increase over previous years. The year-end reserve balance for June was $330 million, suggesting a $6 million operating surplus next summer.

“But we know the budget is fluid, and that will change,” said Romaneir Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer.

Still, despite increased costs of health care, utilities and state pension contributions, the district is on track to end the coming year with a 19% reserve balance.

School board member Lynn Gray said it is important to keep track of losses that will happen as thousands of Hillsborough students pursue home school and private school vouchers, made possible by legislation that passed this spring.

“Monetarily, we need to know, as a board, what we are dealing with as a result of HB 1,” Gray said, referring to the bill that expanded Florida’s voucher program.

Board member Patti Rendon, however, said it is impossible to know how much money or even how many students are lost to the vouchers because “they could already have been in private school and home school, and never have been part of the count.”

The district’s 20-day enrollment count, which will be released soon, will shed more light on how full or empty the schools are and how much growth there was in charter schools, which are state-funded but operated independently. Johnson said that early counts show the charter schools gained 2,000 students while the district overall lost 1,500.

But, she said, it is too early to get a precise count because so many families have moved to the area from Northern states, where school does not begin until after Labor Day.

The teacher’s union, meanwhile, is eyeing the 19% reserve as it negotiates for raises.

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association has asked for about $100 million a year more in compensation, with the typical teacher starting at a $50,000 salary and able to reach $80,000 after 25 years. The district countered Wednesday with a schedule that would start at $47,500 with a ceiling of $70,750.

“We’ve heard what your priorities are and we know what our goals are,” human relations manager Danielle Shotwell told the union team. “We want to be able to function with whatever salary schedule we agree on so that we can maintain and sustain it moving forward.”