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School taxes will fall slightly

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com

In this most unusual of years, no surprise that Gulf District Schools is not experiencing the usual budget process.

The timeline has been disrupted and the final numbers appear almost upside down compared to the conditions surrounding the public school district.

First, the straight dope.

As currently established, the millage rate, tentative at this point, will drop 2.73 percent while overall revenues will increase roughly $264,000.

A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed taxable personal property.

The increase in the millage can be linked to a 15.75 percent increase in the value of the mill compared to the prior fiscal year; roughly $275,000 for the public schools.

However, overall spending by the district will drop 9.2 percent compared to last year, the result, primarily, of Hurricane Michael-related expenditures which were roughly $10 million during the prior fiscal year.

For the schools, in fact, the fiscal year is already well underway, starting June 1 as opposed to other local taxing authorities.

This maintains an annual theme that school budgets, in crafting and implementation, are unlike those for any other local governing body.

The Gulf County School Board has little sway over the final numbers, which are almost entirely decided by lawmakers during the annual 60-day legislative session.

And due to the pandemic, and the resulting delayed signing of the state budget by the governor, the final calculation from the state for public schools arrived at local districts late last Friday afternoon.

That is more than 45 days into the fiscal year.

“This is the latest I have ever received the final numbers,” said Financial Officer Sissy Worley.

And the delay had the potential for creating something of a log jam for local governments.

The school district is, by Florida law, mandated to be the first through the annual budgetary gauntlet of public hearings and final adoption.

The Board of County Commissioners and municipalities must follow.

Tentative millage rates must be submitted to the county property appraiser by Aug. 1 and with the BOCC and city of Port St. Joe poised to set millage rates Tuesday, the school district was on something of a clock.

And the school board will hold its first public hearing on the budget 5:15 p.m. ET Monday, about as quick a turnaround from a budget advertisement to initial public hearing as one could experience.

As a breakdown of the district millage rate, state lawmakers carved 4.66 percent from the Required Local Effort component, that which must be levied locally to receive state funds.

Discretionary millage is standard in all 67 school districts and county voters have supported for over a decade a one-cent additional operational mill.

That operational mill increased in line with property values, all but accounting for the district’s overall increase in revenue.

The one component over which the local school board has any sway is that levied for local capital improvements, bricks and mortars: the board lowered the LCI millage by less than 1 percent.

Worley noted that while the tentative budget reflects an increase in funding, state funding arrives within what are known as categoricals: funds must be spent within that category, reducing local flexibility.

In addition, just as with Hurricane Michael, the district is likely to incur unforeseen expenses during the coming fiscal year, Worley said.

“We are going to make it work,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton.

Safety plans

Safety plans for each school were to be finalized this week.

A major issue is the cafeteria at Port St. Joe Elementary School.

Lunchrooms at the other four public schools provide plenty of space for social distancing and the district is examining options at PSJES, Norton said.

Norton said he hoped to finalize a proposal to construct adjacent to the cafeteria a temporary tent with metal infrastructure to provide as much as 5,000 additional square feet, provided the district can cool it during hot months.

Such an add-on also could be used to provide sufficient distancing for activities such as physical education.

Justin Newman with Johnson Control said work on the central energy plants at each high school are on track for completion by start of school.

Newman said the company was also on track for the installation of anti-viral UV lighting in common areas and classroom specific temperature controls.

“Everything is progressing well,” he said.