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Bulloch school leaders weigh options for fiscal 2016 budget
Nothing decided yet about proposed millage increase
Charles Wilson web
Superintendent Charles Wilson

After presenting a budget that, if totally funded, would call for a 2-mill increase in property taxes, Bulloch County Schools executives also suggested some middle-ground options.

The Board of Education meets at 6:30 p.m. today at its offices in the William James Educational Complex. Development of the fiscal year 2016 budget is back on the agenda.

In April, Superintendent Charles Wilson and Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown outlined a budget that would fund a 5 percent boost in the base wages of employees such as bus drivers, custodians and teaching assistants. It also calls for thawing a 20-year freeze on local supplements to teacher salaries, at an increased cost of about
1.4 percent.

This maximum proposed budget also would bring all 15 schools to the same baseline of funding per student and support "local values" of more counselors and art, music, foreign language and physical education teachers.

But at the May 14 board meeting, Wilson and Brown charted some middle ground.

"Is this too much at one time?" was one question Wilson said had been raised since April.

One option, he said, would be to increase local money to each school to make up for lingering cuts in state funding but not fund the "local values" for more counselors, special subjects teachers and staff training.

"We could just kind of scrap this discussion on this local values formula on how we're going to fund our schools," Wilson said, describing this as one of the ideas he had heard from board members and others.

Another option, he said, would be to partially fund or phase in funding for the local goals. But some basic issues have been identified that need to be addressed, Wilson said.

Costs of options

Boosting local funding to the schools to make up for remaining state austerity cuts would cost $2.18 million, according to a chart Brown presented. But this way, every school would get an increase, ranging from $72,584 for Portal Middle High School to $284,793 for Statesboro High School.

In comparison, bringing the six schools that are underfunded up the amount suggested by the state's current funding formula, which is subject to the austerity cuts, would cost only $412,541. But it would mean no additional money for nine of the schools.

The option in the original budget suggestion, leveling the per-student funding while plugging in extra money for the "local values" of more counselors and specialized teachers, would cost $2.33 million. However, it would boost funding for 14 of the schools but not for the one whose per-student spending is already highest, Portal Middle High.

Improved state funding

The Legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal have partially restored the funding to school systems within the Quality Basic Education formula, which assigns dollars based on the number of students in each grade or program.

This trend suggests that a further increase will occur next year, Brown said.

"Each year, as the state's budget is having additional revenues, they are reducing our austerity reduction," Brown said. "A few years ago, it was $7 million. Now it's just over $2 million for next year."

So, replacing the full austerity reduction this year with local money that is already in the bank is a possibility, he and Wilson suggested. The school system now has a general fund balance of more than $20 million, exceeding a state guideline for a year-end reserve.

"If we were to forget about the local values discussion and go back and look at what the state is still holding back, would we want to basically, as an option, subsidize that out of our fund balance for a year until we see what the state does?" Wilson asked.

But board member Cheri Wagner said that this would be like "rolling the dice" and giving the state and the economy control of the school system's budget.

"To use the term that's out there a lot, it's 'kicking the can down the road,' " she said, "and I just personally don't want to see us do that. I think we need to address these issues."

Meanwhile, some increases are beyond local control, such as about $600,000 more for health insurance for noneducator employees as the state shifts this expense to local school systems.

Millage comparison

Brown also presented a comparison of Bulloch County's effective millage rate with that of other counties. The effective millage includes both the actual property tax rate and a 1 percent local option sales tax, which Bulloch and only six other Georgia counties apply to their schools' annual budgets.

Bulloch County's property tax rate for school operations, 9.848 mills, is the lowest among 31 contiguous Southeast Georgia school districts. But with the sales tax added, Bulloch's effective millage, 15.587, is a little higher than the average of 15.173 mills for the other 30 school districts.

A mill is $1 on each $1,000 worth of property as assessed for taxes. Georgia assesses most property at 40 percent of market value. So, 2 mills of tax on a $100,000 home would be $80. Each mill brings the school system about $1.7 million.

Wilson said that he and Brown were welcoming further input from board members in preparation for tonight's meeting.

They said they hoped to have a recommended budget for the board's approval June 11.

A separate motion would be needed later to set the millage rate, and any increase would require a series of public hearings.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.