A 2-mill tax increase came off the table when the Bulloch County Board of Education met Thursday. But a 1.5-mill increase is now in play, versus spending down the school system’s cash reserve by a few million dollars.
A 2-mill increase would add $80 to the tax bill on a property with a $100,000 market value. A 1.5-mill increase on the same property would be $60.
During the meeting, those board members who spoke the most expressed two contrasting opinions.
“While it does raise the millage rate, it also subscribes to a very conservative approach,” said District 4 member Steve Hein, explaining why he wanted to eliminate two budgeting options that called for no tax increase at all.
What he meant by a conservative approach, he explained, was to protect the school system’s fund balance. Dipping into the balance now while waiting to see if state funding improves, Hein said, agreeing with District 1 member Cheri Wagner, could mean “having this very same discussion next year.”
When board members made their own list of priorities – mostly spending items – Hein had one revenue item put on the screen: “1.5-mill increase.”
A few minutes afterword, District 7 member Mike Herndon had a different funding priority added to the list.
“I’d like no millage rate increase,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chairman LeVon Wilson, District 5 member Glennera Martin and District 2 member Mike Sparks expressed support for an increase in the base pay of non-teaching employees, such as bus drivers, custodians and paraprofessionals. It appeared on the list as a 5-percent raise.
Various board members also voiced support for restoring the local pay supplement for teachers to 3.75 percent of their 2015 state-funded salaries. For about 20 years, the supplement has been based on the 1995 state salary schedule and is now about 2.25 percent of the current base pay, after the state gave teachers some raises.
The board made its own list after reaching no consensus on four options presented by school system Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown and Superintendent Charles Wilson. Their April suggestion of a 2-mill increase was gone before the meeting started.
The first two options that Brown presented called for no millage increase. The first, which would have provided no raises for teachers or other employees, still added about a dozen teaching jobs and two assistant principals. It projected a $3.3 million excess of spending over revenue.
At that rate, Brown predicted, the general fund balance would be reduced from $19 million to about $15.6 million in fiscal year 2016, trending downward to $5.8 million at the end of fiscal year 2020. The five-year trends assume no tax increases for 2017 or beyond.
The second tax increase-free option would have used local money to replace half of the current year’s remaining state austerity reduction in per-student funding to the schools, at a cost of $1.1 million. It would also have included a 3 percent increase, rather than 5 percent, in the base pay of non-certified employees, with no local supplement boost to teachers.
That option, Brown projected, would have reduced the balance to $15.3 million next year, trending down to $4 million in 2020.
The third option he presented suggested a 1 mill increase and added a partial restoration, to 3 percent, of the teacher salary supplemented. The projected 2016 year-end balance was $16.7 million, trending down to $11.7 million in 2020.
Brown’s fourth option also included a 3 percent base-pay increase for non-certified employees and an increase in teacher supplements to 3 percent. But it called for a 1.5-mill tax increase. This was projected to hold the 2016 year-end balance to $16.9 million, declining to $12.6 million in 2020.
A 1.5-mill increase would add about $2.6 million to the school system’s projected $19.45 million in local property tax revenue. The system also receives about $10.9 million in regular sales tax revenue for its operating budget. State funding is projected at almost $46 million.
At about $19 million, the Bulloch County Schools’ general-fund balance is about 24 percent of current spending, Brown said. This exceeds a longstanding state guideline of 15 percent, but Brown and Wilson say the recession years proved the wisdom of having a larger reserve.
The 15-percent level would be about $12 million.
Herndon expressed doubt about the projections of a reduced fund balance, especially after Brown noted that the balance has improved this year.
“How can we go to the community to raise taxes, worried about this fund balance that has actually grown during the recession?” Herndon said. “What are we basing that on?”
Superintendent Wilson confirmed that the system has emerged with a larger fund balance. But he and Brown noted that this followed the elimination of more than 100 teaching positions by attrition, and cuts of about $8 million in annual spending through last year.
“The numbers are empirical, but they’ve been on the backs of our teachers, our noncertified (employees), our students,” Hein said.
The board’s own list covered most of the spending items in Brown’s fourth option and also restored the full raise amounts suggested in the earlier, 2-mill increase budget, as well as “local values” for more counselors and special-subjects teachers.
But no votes were taken during the work session devoted to the budget during Thursday night’s meeting. Brown and Wilson pressed for informal direction so that a finished budget can be presented for the board’s approval in June.
Brown confirmed that the system could fund a budget by dipping into its cash reserve without getting in trouble in fiscal year 2016.
“But what we have to understand is, a year from now we can’t kick it down the road very much farther, because once we put something in play, we can’t next year then take another $4 million hit,” he told board members.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.