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Collier's school board proposes referendum for August primary to make funds 'flexible'

Rachel Fradette
Naples Daily News

Collier County’s school district is calling for a tax referendum to go before voters in August stemming from anticipated budget shortfalls due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“A referendum is not new from Collier County Public Schools,” Superintendent Kamela Patton said in a special meeting Tuesday. 

The tax neutral referendum, which does not result in a tax increase, requests capital and operations fund flexibility.

The school board is proposing capital dollars — which fund maintenance, facilities, and debt payments among others — be voluntarily reduced to increase operating funds, or funds for personnel and staff costs, according to the resolution's language.      

Operating funds, which are used for day-to-day expenses, are "inadequate to meet the district's current needs," according to the resolution that contains details of the proposed referendum.

The board fears an operating budget shortfall starting in fiscal 2021-22 due to the escalating financial situation as a result of COVID-19, according to the resolution. 

“The budget will run out soon,” Lisa Morse, director of community engagement and district initiatives, said.

The school district is required by law to bring its four-year referendum to the public for a vote, which is expected to be placed on the Aug. 18 primary election ballot.

More:Collier County School Board approves $1.16 billion budget, higher property tax rate

Board Chairwoman Stephanie Lucarelli and Vice Chairman Erick Carter praised district staff for addressing suggestions to the referendum. No other board members commented. 

Board chair Stephanie Lucarelli begins a virtual meeting of the Collier County School Board on April 21, 2020.

If approved by voters, the district's capital funds will reduce by .35 mills — one mill is $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value — and increase operating funds by .35 mills — an offset of costs.

The result of the referendum, if successful, would begin supporting district operations in July 2021, according to the resolution.

The school board’s unanimous vote Tuesday arrives after private and public schools in Florida closed for the remainder of the school year due to the pandemic.

More:Florida schools won't reopen this academic year due to coronavirus pandemic

The school board is expected to hold a hearing in July to share its proposed budget for the school year.

“CCPS administration will continue to look at budget reduction and consolidating expenses whenever possible, but without flexible funding many programs may be at risk,” Morse said.

Some programs that could see reductions include funding for teacher recruitment and music or arts departments, Morse said. 

In this year's 2019-2020 budget, salary negotiations added to an already existing deficit that now sits at about $20 million, according to the district.

More:Collier school board OKs largest teacher pay increase in 5 years after union deal

In 2008, Collier voters approved a similar tax neutral referendum. It was renewed in 2012.

The referendum funding ended in 2016, so the district began using budget reserves to cover expenses once covered by the referendum, according to a district presentation.

Charter schools would receive a share of referendum dollars as required by Florida law.

The board is live-streaming meetings after canceling their April 14 meeting at Everglades City School, acknowledging Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive orders on public meetings.

In next steps, the referendum will be sent to the Board of County Commissioners for approval at its May 12 meeting before it can be added to the ballot.

The referendum's ballot language is due to the Collier Supervisor of Elections by June 18 ahead of vote-by-mail ballots going out July 9. 

For more information or questions, go to www.collierschools.com/referendum or email referendum@collierschools.com.

Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at rfradette@gannett.com.

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