School District files suit against county over date of sales tax referendum

The Suncoast News | By Hernando Today staff | June 7, 2022

BROOKSVILLE – The Hernando School District filed a lawsuit on Monday, asking the court to compel the Hernando County Commission to place on the November ballot the district’s referendum asking voters to renew the existing half-cent sales tax for school facilities, the district said in a press release.

The school district said it wanted to renew the tax early because it needed to plan for growth in the county. The County Commission has approved 11,000 new homes, district officials said in published reports, and the district needs to plan well in advance for the infrastructure it says it will need to educate the children.

The current tax doesn’t expire until 2025. On May 10, the county commission voted 4-1 to delay the ballot until November 2024. The school district then threatened a lawsuit.

In an email after the May 10 vote, County Commission Vice Chairman John Allocco was critical of the school district’s move.

“The choice to place the half-cent renewal on the ballot 3 years early of the 2025 sunset is purely political and a way to avoid it and the 1 mil tax renewal being on the same ballot,” he wrote in an email. “The HCSB can sue the BOCC if it chooses and explain why it isn’t. My decision stands, that a tax shouldn’t go on a ballot for renewal until the election before it expires.”

School Superintendent John Stratton said in the press release on Tuesday that he wishes the County Commission would cooperate on the issue.

“I want to make it clear that we would much prefer to have the county commission cooperate with us and place the issue on the November ballot, as requested,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is not the case. Waiting until 2024 will only delay the timeline to adequately meet the needs of our growing community. We can’t serve our families well if we wait until those new students are walking through our doors before we develop a clear plan for building or repairs.”

The school district is projecting that new housing developments will increase student enrollment by more than 3,700 students in the next few years and the district can’t plan or bond for additional funds unless they know that voters have approved the measure, the district said in a press release.

The process of building a new school takes five years to find and purchase land, secure the financing, design and build a new school. Those new students will arrive long before the schools can be built or expanded.

“The bottom line is we have logical and compelling reasons for placing this on the 2022 ballot, and the county has no compelling reason for making us wait until 2024,” Stratton said. “It’s best for taxpayers, it’s best for students and teachers, and it’s best for prudent planning and managing growth.”

If the county commissioners don’t change their mind, the district will move forward with the lawsuit, which contends that the state statute guiding the county’s ministerial role provides no discretion to change the date.

The County Commission does not agree.

“Taxpayers don’t want one local government to sue the other,” said School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino. “It’s a waste of money. But it would be a bigger waste if we can’t move forward with our facility plans and bonding needs without knowing if the money is going to be there in 2025 and beyond. There’s a quick and easy solution, and that is for county commissioners to truly understand our rationale and place it on the ballot.”

The lawsuit was filed in the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Hernando County.

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