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Fuel prices bloat school budget

The rising cost of diesel fuel for school buses will add $450,000 to the district budget.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Amid all the money for extra teachers and programs to help students read, one of the largest new expenses the school district faces next year won't shrink class sizes or help kids learn any better.

It will simply cover the cost of getting them to and from school.

The rising cost of diesel fuel for school buses will add $450,000 to the district's budget. That's more than the $320,000 for a new reading initiative and more than the $400,000 to hire teachers to compensate for a bigger student body.

It is one of the largest new expenses in the district's proposed $84-million operating budget. Board members, who received their first look at the budget Thursday, were incredulous.

But Superintendent John Sanders said the school district must prepare for the unhappy proposition that fuel prices will remain high through the 2000-01 school year.

"We are trying to make sure we are ready if they play this game some more," Sanders said, in a vague reference to pricing strategies of the world's oil producers.

At first glance, the diesel fuel expense may be the budget's greatest surprise. But if previous years are an indication, others will become clear over the next month as board members start dissecting the budget's details.

Initially, the financial outlook calls for a lower property tax rate and increased spending -- all made possible by a forecast for continued growth in Hernando County's tax base.

The school tax rate would drop 2.3 percent. The millage rate -- a mill being equal to $1 of tax of each $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt property -- would drop to 10.242 mills. The owner of a $50,000 home with the $25,000 homestead exemption would save $6 -- provided the home's assessed value stays the same.

Spending, meanwhile, would increase by about 8 percent. The operating budget for the current school year is about $78-million. Next year it will grow to more than $84-million.

All told, 18 teachers would be added to the payroll. Ten would be added to compensate for what is expected to be a larger student body. Another eight would be devoted to reading instruction in the elementary grades, part of the district's all-out blitz to help struggling young readers.

Rising costs are expected to affect areas other than diesel fuel. An extra $800,000 is being set aside to cover higher employee health care costs. And the largest piece of the budget pie in any year -- employee salaries -- also will be larger.

Exactly how much they increase will not be known until the district finishes haggling with the teachers union and the union that represents support staff, including bus drivers, custodians and teachers aides.

As bargaining with those unions continues, the school district will take about $4.1-million to the table. And that's if the district chooses not to add any extra breathing room to its pencil-thin $2.1-million cash reserve.

Budget writers say cash reserves should equal about 4 percent to 5 percent of the budget. The school district's current reserve is less than 3 percent.

Away from the day-to-day expenses, district officials are asking the School Board to approve about $16.4-million in capital expenses next year.

The majority of that -- about $7.1-million -- would be spent on the first phase of construction for the district's new high school. Other big ticket items include $550,000 for 10 new school buses and $530,000 for portable classroom leases.

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