After considering putting the money into the school system's general fund to partly offset deficit spending, the Bulloch County Board of Education voted last week to allocate all $950,000 from the sale of the old Sallie Zetterower Elementary School to facilities projects.
The vote July 28 was 6-1, with Chairman Mike Herndon voting "no" and District 2 member Mike Sparks absent. District 3 member Dr. LeVon Wilson wasn't physically present but participated by speaker phone. This was the second meeting where the issue had been discussed. At the July 14 meeting, the board had voted 4-3 against a motion to place the money in the general fund.
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson came to last week's meeting with a recommendation to split the $950,000 between the general fund and the capital projects fund, $475,000 to each. But that recommendation died when no board member made a motion. So he then recommended that all $950,000 go to the capital projects fund.
District 5 board member Glennera Martin made the motion.
"At this point, they're doing a lot to improve our schools in terms of facilities, and we will really need those funds, and I think, since those funds did come out of that program, it will be advantageous to give it back to them so they can continue the improvements for the different schools in the county," Martin said in an interview this week.
Money to build the new Sallie Zetterower Elementary came from the Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or ESPLOST, approved by voters, District 1 board member Cheri Wagner noted during the earlier meeting. The new school on Cawana Road opened in 2011.
The board sold the old school and its 8-acre campus on East Jones Avenue to the limited liability company South Main PTP and John E. Lavender in June for $1 million, but $50,000 went to two real estate firms as commission.
Established in the 1950s but with buildings added in later decades, the old school wasn't built with ESPLOST money. But several board members reasoned that the new school's construction allowed the old one to be sold and that putting the money into the capital projects fund will allow it to supplement ESPLOST funds for other projects.
District 4 member Steve Hein seconded Martin's motion.
The board, Hein said, had held out to get what members felt was the best price for the old school and previously gathered input from the community and schools on what each school's building and athletic facilities needs are.
"And so it just seemed to be that that was an appropriate allocation of those funds," he said.
But either use would have been "a great outcome" with the receipt of nearly $1 million dollars to benefit the schools having "no downside," he added.
Herndon, who cast the one opposition vote, said he was hoping to put at least some of the money into the school system's general fund to help reduce this year's deficit.
Spending that exceeded revenue last fiscal year reduced the general fund balance from about $19 million to $16.4 million. In the old budget that closed June 30, the board funded local raises for teachers and other employees and also used local money to compensate for lingering recession-period cuts in state funding to the schools.
In the fiscal year that began July 1, the board is passing along an increase in state funding as a one-time stipend to employees. With the effects of the previous spending increases continuing, Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown has projected that the reserve will be reduced to about $12.6 million by June 30, 2017.
In a work session that was part of the July 28 meeting, Brown and Wilson urged the board to begin long-range thinking about finances. With the reserve shrinking, they pointed to the possibility of a referendum to continue the ESPLOST beyond its Dec. 31, 2018 expiration or of an increase in the property tax millage in the next few years.
After casting the only vote against last year's budget, Herndon voted for this year's budget a couple of months ago. But he said he did so while hoping for opportunities to reduce the deficit and so voted against putting all of the Sallie Z. proceeds into facilities.
"I just don't want us to get our backs against the wall on a millage rate increase," Herndon said this week.
"If we need it, we need it, but not to force ourselves into it after coming through the recession pretty well," he said. "We had to take some cuts we didn't want, but we've gotten through it, and as hopefully the economy gets a little better, the state's funding gets back in order for us, I just wish we could slow down a little and not get ahead of ourselves."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.