The Flagler County School Board this evening adopted next year’s $166 million budget with a 5-0 vote in the second of two required public hearings. The vote followed a 70-minute hearing punctuated by a dozen comments and questions, most of them from some of the 30-odd members of the Flagler County Tea Party Group, who’d showed up in red or white shirts inscribed with the group’s “Taxed Enough Already” motto.
On the whole, however, and despite the school board’s property tax rate rising 3.1 percent over last year’s tax rate, the board did not sustain the sort of criticism tea party members leveled at the Palm Coast City Council during a meeting focused on the city’s budget last month—even though the city’s tax rate is to remain flat.
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The comments and questions before the school board did not necessarily focus on the budget. A woman asked how and when the U.S. Constitution is taught in schools, a question fielded effectively by the student board member, Ryan McDermott (it’s taught virtually every year in social studies classes). One man was upset about what he described as “assaults” in schools (a student “tea-bagging” another, though that student was expelled, and boys snapping girls’ bra straps, which the man described as sexual assault). Another wondered why his total tax bill had apparently doubled. Not quite jokingly, board members directed the man to pose his question to Jay Gardner, the property appraiser, who stood against a wall in the chamber.
Other questions asked about fluctuations in student enrollment, which controls the amount of money the state contributes to the local state budget, and on the constitutional amendment requiring class sizes to top off at certain numbers, which also compels more local spending. A proposed amendment to the constitution, appearing on this November’s ballot, would—if passed—grant local boards more flexibility in applying class sizes. The amendment is unlikely to pass, however, so the Flagler school board is budgeting for the year as if it would remain under the stricter class-size mandate.
Yet another man, his tone just shy of indignant, asked if undocumented immigrants are taught in the school district. They are. But board members hesitated to answer at first until Colleen Cinklin took the question head on: “We are not allowed to ask the status of these students, whether they are legal or illegal,” she said. “We are required to educate,” Evie Shellenberger, who chairs the board, said.
The school board is required by law to hold two public hearings before finally adopting its new budget. In previous years, those hearings have been barely attended (as was the first hearing of the board). This year has been different, as members of the tea party group have made a point of filling as many seats as possible in hearings where local governments are taking their final budget votes.
The $166 million budget includes $19 million in reserves, $29 million in capital (or construction) projects), and $17 million in special revenue, including federal dollars (and federal stimulus dollars). Of the remaining $98.5 million that add up to the general fund (where local and state instructional dollars flow), salaries and benefits account for 80 percent of that. In his budget briefing to the board and the public at the beginning of the hearing, Tom Tant, the district’s finance director, said the budget has been pared significantly over the past few years, with more paring ahead: the district’s enrollment may have fallen for the first time in recent memory, forcing further reductions in spending.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing, do more of it,” was the final comment from the floor, that one from a retired business owner who’s facing a combined 30 percent increase in taxes in the past two years and projecting into the next.
Conklin, with a captive, if tough, audience of likely voters, did not let the hearing end without making a pitch for the tax proposal the school board is putting to voters on November’s ballot. The property tax proposal (25 cents per $1,000 in valuation, or $31 a year for a $150,000 house with a $50,000 homestead exemption) would continue an existing tax that school boards could previously levy by their own majority. The Legislature now requires boards to put the tax to a general vote. Conklin reminded her audience that the $2 million or so flowing in from that tax supports existing services, including teachers. The audience did not respond.