Keith Birkett: Why the School Board cut your millage


Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 10:41 p.m.

If schools need money, why is the Alachua County School Board reducing the local property tax rate?

It's a question that comes up almost every year when the board adopts a new millage rate and budget. And it's a legitimate question; especially this year, when the district is asking the public to renew the one mill for schools on Election Day.

The answer is that school boards in Florida have very little control over the school tax rate in their communities. That's because the biggest portion of the total school tax rate, about 62 percent in Alachua County, is set by the state.

That portion is called the Required Local Effort, or RLE for short. Every year the Florida Legislature decides what that RLE will be for each district. All school boards must then levy that amount to receive their district's share of state dollars, which for Alachua County is about $63 million.

This year, lawmakers set the RLE for Alachua County at 5.301 mills, down from 5.454 mills last year. (One mill equals $1 in property taxes for every $1000 of the taxable value of a property.).

The other portion of the local school tax rate that's going down this year is what's called the “debt service.” That's the amount the district needs to pay for facilities projects approved by voters in the past. Once those debts are paid off, the debt service millage goes away. We can't use it to fund something else, like salaries. That would violate the law. This year the district paid off its outstanding debt, which is a good thing. As a result, the local school tax rate dropped by about four-tenths of a mill.

Because both the RLE and the debt service millage dropped, the overall school tax rate the School Board approved for 2012-13 is about half a mill less than it was last year. But again, the drop in the RLE was mandated by the state and the drop in the debt service was required by law.

Of course, that could and almost certainly will change next year. The state could move the RLE up or down next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. We never know what our RLE will be until the state announces it each summer.

That's why the one mill is such a critical piece of the district's budget picture. If it's renewed by voters on Election Day, we'll be able to guarantee that the vital people and programs supported by the one mill will stay in place in our schools for the next four years no matter what happens in Tallahassee.

We'll be able to protect elementary art and music, K-12 guidance programs and media centers, academic and career/tech magnets, middle and high school bands and chorus programs, classroom technology and, of course, school nurses.

School budgeting is a complex process. It's no wonder citizens have questions, but hopefully this information will give a clearer picture of what's going on here in Alachua County.

A more detailed report on the district's budget is available on the district's website at www.sbac.edu.

Keith Birkett is assistant superintendent for planning and budget for the School Board of Alachua County.

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