a group of children sitting on the floor in a classroom

Monroe County School District’s preliminary 2022-23 budget proposes $20.4 million more in spending for day-to-day operating expenses than the year before. Some school board members wary over the proposed increase suggested less spending and more saving to cover what could come about in the future budget cycle. 

A tentative, $293-million budget unveiled during a July 19 school board meeting at Coral Shores High School detailed the effects of a spike in property values over the year from $33.6 billion in 2021 to $44.1 billion in 2022. The proposed budget for the school district proposes to levy around $137 million in taxes for the 2022-23 fiscal year. The year before, the school district in its initial budget discussions eyed a tax levy of $117 million. 

“Historical is what I’m hearing,” said Beverly Anders, director of finance and performance, regarding the property value jump in Monroe County. “I don’t think the county has seen anything like that.”

A portion of the tax levy is required under state law in order for the school board to receive some $15 million in state education grants. The remainder of the taxes is proposed solely at the discretion of the school board. 

A proposed millage rate for the 2022-23 fiscal year is 3.0786, or roughly $307 per $100,000 of assessed value. Per the Save Our Home Amendment, the annual increase in the assessed value of homesteaded properties can only be 3% or the change in the National Consumer Price Index (CPI), whichever is less. A taxpayer with a home valued at $500,000 last year with a Homestead Exemption of $25,000 and the maximum allowed increase in assessment (3% or $15,000) will pay $51.41 or 3.3 percent less in school taxes in support of this budget than they did in fiscal year 2021-22.

Due to changes in Florida law, the school district will have a referendum on the ballot for the Aug. 23 elections which will combine the 0.500 mills for operational purposes and the 0.0625 mills for safety and security. It will ask the voters to continue this funding for another four years. According to the school district, the funding represents a total of $24.1 million and is critical for the district’s annual operations. 

If this funding renewal is not approved, it could result in an 18% reduction of the school district’s workforce, which translates to about 220 positions. 

“It would be devastating,” Anders said. “It would affect schools and education for students. I hope that people understand that.”

On top of operating expenses of $137.46 million, the proposed budget includes $6.92 million for food service, $20.66 million for debt service, $92.83 million for capital projects, $18.69 million for internal service, $8.10 million for ESSER funds and $500,000 for trust and agency. 

Anders said the proposed budget contains budgeted salaries and benefits, which include $1.7 million in teacher raises, and payments to charter schools, $1.7 million. The budget also accounts for increases in contracted services, $1.7 million, as well as high utility costs, $1.7 million. 

Around $3 million was budgeted for the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which provides students the ability to attend a private school. The scholarship is based on a family’s income. And effective July 1, the McKay Scholarship Program joined the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program. It’s designed to offer families of students with disabilities, as young as 3 years of age, access to additional education options. 

Anders said the proposed budget includes roughly $1.5 million for the fund balance. Board Chair John Dick said he’d like more added to that fund to prepare for next year. 

“I’d be careful about all this added spending. Less, less, less (spending) and more into fund balance,” he said. 

Board member Bobby Highsmith said he had trouble over $20-plus million increased taxes year-over-year. 

“It’s every municipality. … The county and every place in this island chain (are) raising taxes to deal with inflation and cost of living, and it’s a little bit here and there. But it adds up,” he said. 

Board member Andy Griffiths said the people who will “suck up the big burden” of school taxes are newly-acquired business owners. 

“And they knew what the taxes were going to be when they closed on the deal,” he said. 

Anders told the board she’d be back with different budget numbers based on the board’s comments. A public hearing on the tentative budget is set for Tuesday, July 26 at Key West City Hall at 5:05 p.m. Another public hearing will be held Aug. 9 at Marathon High School.

TRIM (Truth in Millage) notices will be sent out via mail to taxpayers on Aug. 24. Another public hearing on the budget will be held Aug. 30 at Coral Shores High School. A final budget hearing is set for Sept. 6 at Key West City Hall.

Jim McCarthy
Jim McCarthy is one of the many who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures in Western New York. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 5-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club. When he's not working, he's busy chasing his son, Lucas, around the house and enjoying time with family.