The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) approved a tentative millage rate and budget for advertisement on Monday. While this tentative plan can still change, members of the board asked to see further information before the plan comes back for final approval.
Superintendent Shane Andrew recommended to the board a tentative budget and four millage rates for the 2023-24 year. The combined millage rates would come to 6.432, a slightly lower rate than last year at first glance, but still higher than the 5.958 rollback rate, which is adjusted to draw the same amount of revenue as last year’s rate did.
A millage is a property tax of .1%, equaling $1 for every $1,000 in home value. After adjusting for inflation and property values, which have risen about 12% since last year, the proposed millage is predicted to generate $160.3 million, about $15.4 million more than last year.
Of the four millage rates on the proposal, the voter-approved millage rate is the most important, according to Keith Birkett, chief of finance for Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS). This millage requires the community to agree to the rate. Birkett said the district would like to maintain the 1 mill rate, which is predicted to bring in almost $25 million in revenue, about $2.6 million more than last year.
The school district also proposes a 1.5 mill rate for capital outlay, money used to maintain, upgrade, acquire or repair capital assets. The state allows school boards to levy up to 1.5 mill for this purpose without approval from the electorate.
The proposed discretionary millage rate is .748, predicted to generate $18.6 million for the district.
Finally, Florida requires the district to levy a “required local effort,” or RLE, millage, which will be 3.184 mills for the 2023-24 year.
Andrew said he did not receive the updated RLE rate until July 19. Though he forwarded it immediately to staff, and staff worked through the weekend to use that information to finalize the proposal, the delay meant that board members did not receive information on the proposal until Monday.
The board will have a public hearing to approve the tentative plan on Aug. 1, and a follow-up public hearing on Sept. 11 to approve the final budget and millage rate.
Chair Tina Certain said she felt the staff’s presentation was too vague for her to feel informed enough to make a decision and asked for future meetings to involve more detail. She expressed particular concern over increases in staffing while enrollment declines, dragging revenue down with it.
ACPS recently transferred $70 million in ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) money into its general fund, according to Certain. Andrew explained that the ESSER funds are being used in an ongoing recovery from COVID-19, paying for things which the district had already acquired, and Birkett said the district is closing out the 2022-23 year with $5 million in savings added to its fund balance.
“I don’t think we should presume that we’re in better shape, that our financial condition ratio is in better shape, just because that ending… balance was higher than it was last year,” Certain said. “Because our expenses are higher.”
Certain also reminded board members that during the 2021-22 school year, they were told the budget was balanced, but after an audit they discovered they were below their requirements. Board member Leanetta McNealy pointed out that there have been staffing changes, and commended Birkett for refraining from commentary on last year’s budget.
McNealy suggested that all board members should take time to meet one-on-one with Birkett to understand how the budget balances, but Certain said she would rather ensure that a detailed budget be provided to the public as well.