By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
Voters said no to more money for the school district in an electoral squeaker. So the Volusia County School Board will go back to the drawing board with public budget workshops starting in January. That will be after a special election to fill the vacant District 2 seat.
Dr. Al Williams died on Oct. 1 after winning re-election in the Aug. 14 primary. Five are vying for his former school-board seat. The special election will be on Dec. 18 in the District 2 area, which is largely Port Orange.
In the general election, Nov. 6, Volusia voters narrowly declined a referendum to add a property-tax surcharge of $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value for four years. The money was intended to go into the school district's operating budget.
"If we used the current taxable value, which has fluctuated, the one mill would have generated $26 million a year for the four years," Dr. Robert Moll, deputy superintendent for financial and business services, said.
That money would have replaced a quarter-mil property-tax surcharge voters approved in 2010, and other recent revenue reductions. The property-tax surcharge expired this fiscal year.
With the latest referendum's defeat, the school board will face hard choices, Dr. Moll said. Since 2007 the district has lost funding from numerous sources. For example, the housing crash siphoned off students -- from about 64,000 to about 61,125 -- which reduced the amount of funding the district receives from the state. Projections had been for the district to have more than 70,000 students by now.
A reduction in students doesn't automatically translate into lower expenses for the district. Students didn't evaporate evenly across geography or grade levels, and many school-operation expenses are fixed. The district's operating budget is about $459 million.
"You take the $459 million and subtract $25 million, and you're looking at $434 million for next year," Dr. Moll said. "Something's got to give. Your system worked on $459 million and you lost $25 million. You can't provide the same things."
The district shed almost 220 teaching positions during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. It did so through attrition. Dr. Moll said it's possible Dr. Margaret Smith, superintendent of schools, may recommend to the school board to cut additional teaching positions.
"All I can do is provide to the board what the challenges are," Dr. Moll said. "The superintendent has to make recommendations."
Linda Costello, Ormond Beach, won her seat in the last election, replacing former school-board member Judy Conte. Ms. Costello said she'll have budget discussions with Dr. Moll and others before the public budget workshops, but also asked citizens to go over the school budget to make recommendations. She declined to identify those citizens, because she's asking others to join the research.
"I'm still in the process of talking to people," she said. "(The participants have) not been definitively determined. I'm talking about business people and accountants."
Ms. Costello believes that school-board members getting people from different backgrounds involved in looking at the budget may help make any cuts less obvious to students.
"I think we first of all have to look at where we can save before we have the answer to how much we need to cut," she said. "I think there are some areas we can privatize."
The new school-board member repeated what others have said for several years.
"Something has to go," Ms. Costello said. "It's going to be painful. The question that has to be asked is -- is there a direct impact on the students in the classroom? We won't cut anything that impacts student learning. Anything that impacts a student's learning will be the last to go."