The last school board meeting on Sept. 7 was almost four hours long, with three hours of it taken up with debating the finer points of whether to tell a child to wear a mask in school. Sometimes the discussion was loud and passionate.

However, during quiet moments, other critical school district business was conducted without fanfare. The board unanimously approved the 2021-2022 final budget, which has total expenditures of $253 million. Of that money, the operating budget — which serves day-to-day needs — is $117 million.

“​​I feel positive about this because we were able to budget for a full complement of staff and teachers,” said Beverly Anders, executive director of finance & performance. Anders helped create the budget and get it passed. “It’s always important to budget for raises for teachers and staff. And we were able to make our millage lower than the prior year.”

The final millage rate is 3.2840. Last year’s rate was 3.3520. A “millage rate” is used to calculate local property taxes. A millage rate of 3.2840 means that for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable property value minus any exemptions, the home owner will be taxed $328.40. The school district depends upon these taxes for its budget.

“Any board is happy to approve a millage rate that doesn’t raise what taxpayers have to pay,” Anders said. “They want to make sure we are not continually raising the millage rate without good reason and good need. And I felt good we didn’t do that this year.”

The budget approval process began when Anders introduced the numbers at a meeting in June. Then three hearings were conducted. Along the way, the board approved a tentative budget so notices about potential property taxes could be sent out to newspapers in August.

No one from the public spoke at the three budget hearings, and no one spoke at the final budget approval, either.

“All the COVID issues really have overtaken the budget process,” Anders said. “Nobody has any desire to have input.”

Some key figures 

The Monroe County School District has 8,465 students. At $87.5 million, the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) is providing $10,359 per student. The state is also paying for all student meals this year, as it did last year through the pandemic, to the tune of $6.4 million.

Salaries and benefits take a big slice out of the operating budget, with $85 million going toward that category.

Outside of the operating budget of $117 million, the district also has a special revenue fund ($18 million), debt service fund ($17 million), capital projects fund ($84 million), internal service funds ($17 million) and a trust and agency fund ($47,000).

The capital projects fund covers projects like remodeling and renovation of current facilities and purchases of school buses, while more debt service was added this year for the renovation and construction of Sugarloaf School.

Back at the Sept. 7 meeting, superintendent Theresa Axford joked, “I can feel the atmosphere in the back getting more jubilant,” as she introduced “Approval of 2021-2022 Final Budget.” 

“We almost chased everyone out of the room,” school board chair John Dick replied.

The budget was approved unanimously. 

Then the public perked up when the meeting moved toward another vote on masking.

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.