School Board approves $1.5 billion budget

Renovations to Zephyrhills High School and the construction of Starkey Ranch K-8 in Odessa and Kirkland Ranch Innovation Academy in Wesley Chapel are all part of the $1.5 billion budget passed by the Pasco County School Board.

LAND O’ LAKES — The Pasco County School Board approved a $1.5 billion budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year during last week’s public meeting, an increase of about $122 million, or 4.74%, compared with last year.

“The 2020-2021 proposed budget reflects fiscal priorities, which prioritizes and supports student achievement and sets aside funds to provide a salary and benefits package increase to all of our employees,” Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning said as he provided an overview of the budget’s particulars.

The approved millage rate of 5.922 mills represents a decrease of 0.179 mills. For a resident with a home valued at $100,000, after factoring the $25,000 homestead exemption, it represents an annual reduction in school taxes of $26.85.

The district’s general operating fund is $704.3 million, up from $666.6 million last year. The capital projects budget stands at $404.4 million, up about $60 million from last year.

The largest budgeted capital projects appropriations go toward the construction of Starkey Ranch K-8 in Odessa, set to open in August 2021, and Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation in Wesley Chapel. A groundbreaking ceremony at the Curley Road site of the latter was held Sept. 9.

Other large projects include renovations to Northwest Elementary in Hudson and James M. Marlowe Elementary in New Port Richey, and the construction of a new bus loop at San Antonio Elementary. Various schools will receive cafeteria renovations, HVAC system replacements and infrastructure upgrades.

Included in the $1.5 billion budget is $4.7 million to increase the salary of Pasco County teachers. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in June that provided $500 million to the state’s school districts to raise teacher pay. Browning said that influx of state funding would increase the minimum base salary for full-time class teachers to approximately $45,000 per year.

“We have budgeted about 1.5% salary increases for all remaining staff,” Browning added.

The school district and the United School Employees of Pasco are currently in negotiations regarding teacher pay. Union President Don Peace addressed the issue at the Sept. 15 meeting, stating that while an increase in funding is a positive, not everyone agrees on how that money may be dispersed.

“I have deep concerns about a situation that can equalize the salaries of a 10- or 12-year, experienced teacher with someone just out of college,” Peace said. “Most experienced career teachers will receive negligible salary improvement from this categorical funding.

“How can anyone stand and say this is good for educators?” Peace continued. “How does this help to incentivize our most experienced people to stay in the profession? Clearly, we as voters need to take a closer look at what is going on at the state level and see who really supports public education.”

The school district’s approved budget does not include federal funding related to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, Browning said. All expenses related to COVID-19 will be covered by the nearly $14.5 million grant Pasco Schools received on Aug. 5.