After just a single public comment, Pinellas School Board approves initial $1.2B budget

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With little input from the public, the Pinellas County School Board gave initial approval on Tuesday to a budget that tops $1.2 billion.

Anastasia Dawson of the Tampa Tribune reports that only a single speaker gave comment on the tax rate and 2014-15 budget, followed by school board members adopting the tentative budget to advance the budgeting process.

One final public hearing will be Sept. 9. The PCSB then expects to adopt a revised budget.

“I like the idea that you’re living within your means,” John Ciani told the board. Ciani is a retired journalist who questioned the school district’s debt and reliance on federal funding.

The general operating fund, which is the main funding source for the school district’s day-to-day operations, will increase by about $13.1 million this year, reaching $878.8 million.

The district will also have $25 million more in state funding, much of it going to specific initiatives. As an example, Dawson writes that $1.1 million will go to ensure schools meet technological requirements for online testing and assignments under the new Florida Standards, to be fully adopted by the next school year.

An additional $1.7 million will be appropriated for the Florida Retirement System due to changes in the state’s contribution rate. The increase will also go to keep 16 schools open for an extra half hour to provide reading intervention each school day, because of low Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading scores and weak reading gains. Florida’s Department of Education requires extra reading time for the 300 lowest performing schools.

“Although the district is receiving $24.9 million in additional funding for students, it doesn’t meet our 2007-2008 allocation … in fact it’s about $13 million less,” School Board member Linda Lerner told the Tribune. “I think the public needs to know that we really are effectively using the money we have, but with many more mandates and expectations for this district, and we’re receiving less funding.”

Another vote by School Board members will be on this year’s ad valorem tax rate of $7.84 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. That is a rate lower than the current school year ($8.06), but with rising property values, it could bring in about $20 million more than last year.

The district expects property tax money of $491 million for the 2014-15 school year.

With about $277 million in its capital budget, the district will fund equipment purchases, construction and renovation projects. About $35 million will go to building a new Largo High School campus, $2.6 million to add new classrooms for East Lake Middle School and $397,500 for additional classrooms at Lealman Intermediate School.

The school district’s four area superintendents control approximately $1.9 million to fund maintenance projects at the schools they administer, from a new fund created for the upcoming school year.

Superintendent Michael Grego told the board on Tuesday that the 16 area schools on the “Low 300” reading list would need to add only an extra half hour to the school day, instead of the projected one-hour. Schools will begin at the customary time, but students will leave one-half hour later so they can participate in additional reading courses. Although the school district already offers tutoring programs at these schools (such as Promise Time), they will not have to stay the full hour as originally expected.

A new school district website will also roll out on Friday, with easier navigation for students and parents.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.