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Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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Unhappy with superintendent’s budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools Superintendent Lori Romano presented to the School Board Tuesday nearly $53 million worth of budget priorities, asking them to choose which will be funded in the upcoming school year.

The board voted 3-2 later Tuesday to fire Romano, leaving budget next-steps in question.

Board members agreed at the earlier session that all 52 items on Romano’s wish list would be nice to have — including more than 1,500 computers, pay raises for employees across the district and more than 320 new hires. Some said plainly that paying for them would be impossible.

"All of these sound wonderful, ya know, in lala land," said board member Beth Narverud. "This is not reality. There is not a way we can do all of this."

Board member Susan Duval called the list "absurd," noting that the items did not include corresponding dollar amounts, nor specific information.

"I can’t see how we can possibly afford 327 new employees," Board Chairman Mark Johnson said.

Romano defended her proposals, saying she wanted to provide the board with needs identified by staff and community members, without attaching them to money. The list, she said, did not rank the importance of the items.

"These are the most important things for us to address," the superintendent said. "It’s not absurd if you’d like to meet the needs that we have in this school district."

For the first time in years, the School Board has discretionary funds, Deputy Superintendent Heather Martin explained at the 2 p.m. workshop.

But at $5.5 million — with a large chunk likely tied to school safety requirements recently mandated by the state — the balance won’t cover what Romano recommended.

"I understand you want us to consider these on their merit, not on our finances, but to do so would be irresponsible," Narverud said. "We would need to see these dollar amounts, otherwise there is really no way to prioritize."

"Money does matter," Duval said. "We need to know what the money is for every single item on here."

The School Board had, in light of the new safety requirements, considered placing a referendum on the August election ballot to increase school taxes, Romano reminded them. Board member Gus Guadagnino later suggested the School Board do just that, but Johnson shut down the idea.

"That’s not going to happen," Johnson said, pointing out that the Hernando County Commission may impose tax increases. "It might be a bit much for people to digest at this time."

Some items, like school resource officers and other safety officials, shouldn’t have been on the list, Johnson said.

"That should be already included in the budget that’s being presented," he said. "It’s required. A mandate. Those items are not an option, and that will reduce that $5.5 (million)."

Staff members can’t add budget items until they receive direction from the board on how it will handle school security, Martin said. At the meeting, officials voiced plans to negotiate with Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis for a new SRO contract. They also directed staff to craft job listings for two safety officials, one to oversee mental health services and another to supervise school safety.

Johnson asked the superintendent’s team to come back with a more organized presentation of budget priorities, including price tags for each item.

Board members Linda Prescott and Gus Guadagnino said they were okay with the presentation format because it gave them a true account of what’s needed in the district.

Duval said the board shouldn’t have to determine which of the district’s needs are most important. That’s the job of Romano and her staff, she said.

"This is a list. That’s all it is — a list," she said. "You all sit down and have those conversations. You go back and do it. You do what you’re asking us to do."

The board must finalize its budget in September.

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

MORE: See full list of Romano’s recommendations here

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hernando school officials consider raising taxes to make schools safer

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