Officially the budget is still tentative, subject to final approval June 25, but there will be no increase in the property tax rate for school funding in Bulloch County this year.
After Superintendent Charles Wilson on Thursday night presented an Option A, with a 1.25-mill tax increase, and an Option B, with no tax increase, the Board of Education instead created an Option C. Approved by a 7-1 vote, this option will fund raises for non-teaching employees and teachers, along with all other costs in Option A, but with no tax increase. Instead, the added spending is projected to reduce the school system’s current $19 million general fund balance by $5.7 million.
“We as a board have the option to go to the taxpayers and raise the millage rate when we need to, and I would prefer we wait another year,” said board member Mike Herndon. “We may have to have this conversation again, but hey, that’s what we signed up for.”
A mill is 1,000th the value of taxed property, but Georgia assesses most property at 40 percent of market value. A 1.25-mill increase would have cost $50 on a home or other property worth $100,000.
Herndon, who said he couldn’t vote for a budget with a millage rate increase attached, wound up casting the one vote against the budget that did not include an increase.
Option C, he said later, went too deep on spending, and he had hoped for a phased-in approach on one major spending item.
Wilson’s Option A, with the millage increase, was already projected to dip into the fund balance by almost $1.6 million.
But the current $19 million balance is more than 22 percent of current-year spending. The $13.2 million balance projected to be left after the board’s $5.7 million deficit spending move with Option C will still be about 15.9 percent.
A longstanding state guideline calls for a reserve of no more than 15 percent, but school systems were allowed to create larger reserves during the recession.
Herndon said that in his eight years on the board he had heard projections of reduced balances before, which didn’t come true. Wilson acknowledged that the balance did increase after spending cuts, and after federal stimulus and some unexpected state funding.
Over the five years beginning with the 2008 economic downturn, the school system cut about 100 teaching jobs by attrition and imposed unpaid furlough days. Last year, with the state beginning to restore funding, the furlough days were eliminated.
Wilson has been telling the board for months now that it is time to step ahead with local funding to put more teachers and counselors back in the schools. Budget talks since February have also included raises, which teachers and paraprofessionals started clamoring for last year.
Like Wilson’s Option A, the board’s newly created option will provide a 5 percent raise for employees without teaching certificates, such as custodians and paraprofessionals, and will increase teachers’ local pay supplement to 3.75 percent of their current state base salaries. For 20 years the supplement has been held at 3.75 percent of the 1995 state salary, now just 2.25 percent of the current salary.
Option C, like Option A, will also restore, at local expense, $2.2 million lost to austerity cuts in state funding, providing cash for new hiring at every school.
“While I believe in the value of providing the cost of living adjustments, I think the single most important priority is putting more people back in front of our students who affect student learning,” Wilson told the board.
Wilson’s Option B would have brought no tax increase. It would have provided a 3 percent raise instead of 5 percent for non-teacher employees and increased the supplement for teachers to 3 percent of their state base salaries, instead of 3.75 percent. Option B would have made up for half of the lost state funding to each school, at a cost of $1.1 million.
Option B would also have reduced the fund balance by almost $4.2 million.
Board member Steve Hein said he favored Option A, with the millage increase.
“If I were to look at what is the good old days … I would say it’s Option A,” Hein said. “It really restores everything to where it once was.”
But after Option C was suggested, Hein said he could go along in the interest of moving forward with a budget.
Member Cheri Wagner referred to making an investment in the future.
“I believe that if we continue with our strategic plan that we should have an increased number of college- and or career-ready students,” she said. “Therefore, we should have an increased number of productive citizens coming back to work in our community, which will … lessen the burden on our tax base,” she said.
But board member Maurice Hill also noted the size of the fund balance, saying the board had done well in maintaining the school system’s finances.
Glennera Martin, first-year member from District 5, asked, “Is there any way possible that we can keep Option A – I would like to help – but without increasing the millage.”
Other members expressed interest in this and called it Option C.
Mike Sparks made the motion, and Hill seconded it.
At one point Herndon asked for more assurance that the $2.2 million infusion of cash to the schools will be spent on personnel. With the school system’s move to become an Investing in Education Excellence School system in exchange for state rule waivers, principals are being given more say in how their school allotments are spent.
Dr. Torian White, principal of Southeast Bulloch Middle School, explained that an additional employee there could free up the two counselors from certain paperwork tasks to spend more time counseling the 700 students.
“I can assure you with about 97.8 percent certainly that it’s going to go to staffing because we are bursting at the seams,” White told the board.
“If he said 97.8, I’ll say 98.8,” said Brooklet Elementary School Principal Marlin Baker. “That is our intent with every single penny.”
Although Herndon was pleased to have no millage increase, he said Friday, he voted against Option C because he hoped for a compromise on the $2.2 million replacement for the austerity cut.
“I would have preferred a gradual increase of it over the next few years,” he said.
The budget calls for almost $82.9 million in spending, with $77.4 million in projected revenue.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.