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Board OKs first hike in six years to school taxes

By Staff | Jul 30, 2009

Lee County school taxes will increase for the first time in six years.
The Lee County School Board certified its millage rate Wednesday night of 7.508, an increase from 6.868 in the 2008-09 school year.
The tax increase is possible because of a one-time statewide opportunity allowing Florida’s 67 districts to raise their rates to counter shortfalls from the Legislature.
The 7.508 millage rate will generate $488 million for the Lee County School District.
Along with certifying the millage, which will now be handed over to the Property Appraiser’s Office, Superintendent James Browder and Budget Director Ami Desamours presented the tentative budget to the board and community.
“These are especially difficult times we are living in, and it has been very difficult through this last year to prepare for a budget where we didn’t have clarity with the dollars we would get,” said Browder.
According to Desamours, per student spending will decrease in the tentative budget by $256.
Approximately 50 percent of the school district’s art and music programs will be lost and a total of 95 teaching positions will be cut, said spokesperson Joe Donzelli.
Earlier projections indicated that the district would have to shed hundreds of teachers.
Twenty-three media specialist positions will be cut in the tentative budget, as well as 17 school counselors, six primary specialists and four career specialists.
Cuts to administrative positions are not as great. The tentative budget has a reduction of one principal, eight directors and one assistant principal.
According to Donna Mutzenard, president of the Florida Education Association, bonuses will be available for district employees.
A 2 percent bonus will be provided for all employees as a result of the district setting aside $27 million in a budget shortfall fund — a way to put some money aside for the employees.
School Board Member Robert Chilmonik voted against the levying of 0.25 mills in discretionary millage — an amount set by the school district.
He proposed instead to leave the discretionary millage at last year’s level of 0.108 mills to avoid burdening Lee County residents.
“There are many reasons not to increase millage rates,” he said, adding that it is not right for the school district to raise local taxes when unemployment is at 13 percent and a second wave of adjusted mortgage foreclosures is expected nationwide.
“The best stimulus for Lee County is to keep those taxes low,” Chilmonik said.
School Board Member Jeanne Dozier said required local effort, or the amount of taxes raised locally by a school district, is higher than ever because the Florida Legislature failed to provide a stable funding source.
She discussed the pitfalls of the Florida Education Finance Program, which collects and doles out Lee County tax money to other districts in the state.
“They have to find a permanent funding source for public education and it has to come now because if it doesn’t we will continue to see education funding chip away until literally there is nothing left,” Dozier said.
Vice Chairman Steve Teuber said local taxes have to be increased because 0.25 mills was taken from the district by the state.
He also characterized the Legislature’s education budget as “smoke and mirrors” that left Lee County responsible for budget shortfalls.
“This has been a year process, not something done overnight or on a whim,” Teuber said. “They took a 0.25 of mill money and put it in operating, so we have to cover it up with our required local effort.”
Members of the school board stressed to the community that staff spent months preparing the millage rate and tentative budget.
“There is an outline so there is no misconception that this budget evolved out of dust and thin air,” said School Board Member Elinor Scricca.
“I think we do feel the pain, but we also have a responsibility,” she said. “This isn’t a champagne budget. It reflects a great deal of thought and hard work.”