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School Board ogles plump reserve

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002

INVERNESS -- The time had come Tuesday to close the books on the past fiscal year and complete a spending plan for the current fiscal year. Suddenly, School Board members were presented a memo that announced unexpected good news.

The board had hoped to maintain an emergency reserve of 3 to 5 percent of its general fund. But final figures showed the reserve on June 30, the end of the fiscal year, stood at $14-million, or 12 percent of the general fund.

Board members immediately began tossing out ideas on how to spend some of that surplus. This concerned finance director Sam Hurst, who later said he didn't expect that, by seeking approval of the annual financial statement, he would be inspiring a potential shopping spree.

In top place on board member Carol Snyder's list: finding some way to help employees who are about to experience significant increases in health insurance costs.

As it stands, single coverage with a $250 deductible costs an employee $50 per month. That premium is set to jump to $80 a month. The school system kicks in another $120 per month to finish paying the full premium.

For families, the premium is even bigger. Family coverage will increase from $280.50 to $355 per month. Again, the district pays $120 per month.

"The insurance is going way up," Snyder said. "We could take care of a portion of that insurance cost with this."

Another idea from Snyder: free breakfast for all students.

Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick reminded the board that issues such as insurance contribution are negotiable; he urged members to discuss such issues in detail behind closed doors in an executive session.

The board agreed to hold such a session later in the evening.

Board Chairwoman Pat Deutschman suggested that schools that have not received school recognition money for their FCAT performances might benefit from a financial boost.

Hurst listened to the various proposals. "You tell us we've got money and we can find ways to spend it," Snyder told Hurst.

"Why don't you lower taxes?" Fitzpatrick asked.

Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel quipped back: "Because we don't want to make you happy."

Nothing was decided about spending some of the additional surplus during the open session.

On Wednesday, Hurst said the reserve fund was not as stocked as the board thought, because several million dollars were put back into the budget to pay for upcoming expenses in the new year.

Hurst also said that the district is making some progress in cutting down on the double budgeting and padding of past years, but there is still a significant way to go.

After a brief public hearing Tuesday night, the board approved the $164-million spending plan, up from last year's $152-million budget.

The board also accepted a 8.667 mill tax rate, a slight decrease from last year's tax rate, although it will still raise about 2 percent more in revenue because of increased property values.

A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a $75,000 house with the $25,000 homestead exemption, the tax bill to support schools will be $433, about $6 less than last year.

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