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Sales tax may yield surplus of $5-million

Revenue from the half-cent tax intended to build a high school can be spent only on the new school.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001

BROOKSVILLE -- In 1998, Hernando County residents supported a fourth county high school by approving a new half-cent sales tax needed to help pay for it.

Ever since, the public has supported the school in a different way: by shopping hard.

A new estimate shows that the sales tax could generate $26.2-million -- more than $5-million above previous projections -- by the time it expires at midnight Dec. 31, 2003.

That kind of performance could mean some welcome breathing room for the School Board, which has been grappling with tough choices over the school's design and its high-tech programs.

The rosy sales tax projection was put together by school district finance director Carol MacLeod and was extrapolated from actual revenues the tax has produced through February 2001. They also assume a continued growth rate of 2 percent for each of the three following years.

MacLeod said the figures, produced at the request of the St. Petersburg Times, were merely an estimate. MacLeod said she has no plans to encourage the School Board to spend with reckless abandon.

And because the 1998 referendum specified that the sales tax revenue must be spent only on the new school, the excess revenues cannot be applied to the district's troubled operating budget.

In 1998, School Board members told voters they would take $21.1-million in sales tax money and $12.7-million from the state and build a $33.8-million high school that would emphasize vocational and technical training.

The state money arrived two years ago. Revenue from the sales tax -- actually a half-percent -- has been pouring in since 1999. Combined, the two sources could add up to $39-million.

Still, no one is ready to start writing any big checks.

In discussing plans for the new high school with the School Board on Tuesday, Superintendent John Sanders never mentioned that the sales tax projections might reach $5-million beyond initial projections.

Asked by a board member for his estimate of the potential surplus, Sanders replied that it could reach $3.5-million. Later, Sanders told the Times that the discrepancy was merely his attempt at being conservative with the numbers.

After the meeting, board Chairman Jim Malcolm said he would have liked to have known the latest projections. "It would have made my job easier," Malcolm said.

School Board member John Druzbick said he was aware of the higher projections. "He's being cautious," Druzbick said of Sanders. "If the economy turns real sour, what happens?"

The new high school, due to open on California Street near the Hernando County Airport in 2003, is being designed to house 1,302 students. It could be expanded later to hold 1,527.

In its full glory, the school could easily cost more than $40-million. But since summer, officials have been sticking to a budget of about $34-million. That design would leave off some key elements in the master plan: a versatile "black box" theater, band and chorus rooms, game-ready athletic stadiums and the final 225-student classroom wing.

Officials haven't been worried about the classroom wing. When it opens, the school will likely need to serve only about 800 students to bring other schools, now crowded, down to their intended capacities.

But the other elements, particularly the athletic fields, could prove vital in attracting students to the new school.

Though construction is due to begin in May, final elements of the design are still being debated. On Tuesday, the board agreed to eliminate two labs -- veterinary science and turf maintenance -- while adding a new print production lab that would replace the district's current printing plant.

The School Board agreed to that change, even though members couldn't get a firm handle on how much adjustments would add to the cost.

The construction manager for the high school, Centex Rooney, estimated that the change could add $800,000 to the price. The school's chief architect, John Pehling, said he thought that figure was high.

Sanders said he wasn't yet sure how the district would use the Mobley Road building now occupied by the district's printing plant.

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