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School tax remains unchanged
Added spending hires new teachers
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With a vote Thursday night that also included other items under "old business," the Bulloch County Board of Education quietly took the final step to keep its property tax rate the same as last year's.

At the previous meeting on July 9, the board had adopted the fiscal year 2016 budget as formally advertised. It increases spending with a 5 percent raise for employees such as custodians, bus drivers and teaching aides, plus the first increase in the local supplement to teachers' salaries in 20 years. Schools are also getting money they can use to hire more teachers.

State funding has increased from last year's. But the Bulloch County Schools' spending, growing by more than 10 percent, exceeds the state and local funding by $5.7 million. So, the school system is projected to reduce its $19 million general fund balance to $13.3 million by next June 30.

A portion of this reserve spending, $2.2 million, is assigned to compensate for lingering austerity in the state's per-student funding. In 2014 and 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature have restored part of the funding cut during the recession, but the local move provides money to be spent at the principals' discretion in advance of further, uncertain state increases.

"Most principals are using their increased funding to hire new teachers to accommodate growth and reduce class sizes," said Hayley Greene, the school system's public relations specialist.

Dr. Ken LeCain, principal of Statesboro High, the largest school in the system, has hired 17 teachers for the new school year. Ten of these replace teachers who left or retired, but seven are additions to the faculty.

The added teachers, along with Statesboro High's change to a seven-period modified schedule, will reduce pupil-teacher ratios after years of increases, LeCain said.

With school set to start in just over a week, hiring is still taking place, so Greene had no exact counts of new teachers county-wide. More than 150 newly hired school personnel of all job descriptions turned out for an orientation Friday.


Final formality

No further discussion accompanied the adoption of the tax digest and five-year millage history Thursday, when the board met for a work session at Statesboro High. In fact, the tax item wasn't mentioned. Superintendent Charles Wilson grouped it with the six other "old business" items for a single vote.

Last year, when the county tax appraisers reassessed certain kinds of real estate at higher values, the school board rolled back its tax rate from 9.95 mills to 9.848 mills to avoid automatic tax increase hearings. But the overall value of the taxable property in Bulloch County declined slightly from 2014 to 2015, so no rollback is required.

The reduction in the tax digest was mainly caused by the state's continuing phase-out of the property tax on motor vehicles, school system Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown confirmed. People who buy new or used cars now pay a larger one-time "new title" tax, while people who have kept the same cars since the law took effect in March 2013 still pay an annual property tax on their vehicles.

This year, the value of taxable real estate and personal property in Bulloch County increased from $1.78 billion to almost $1.82 billion. But the separate motor vehicle category decreased from $120 million to $89 million.


Hike that didn't happen

With spending budgeted at $82.9 million and around $19 million on hand, the Bulloch schools began the fiscal year July 1 with about a 23 percent cash balance.

Earlier this year, Brown and Wilson presented the idea of a tax increase of up to 2 mills to pay for the raises and restore the austerity funding. That would have amounted to an $80 increase on a $100,000 home assessed at 40 percent.

The suggested hike was decreased to 1.25 mills by the time the board discussed firm budget options in June. Most of the eight board members then chose the maximum spending option, with the $2.2 million boost in per-student funding plus the raises. But they decided for no tax increase, opting to reduce the reserve to nearer 20 percent of annual spending, which was long the maximum under state rules.

One board member, Mike Herndon, adamantly opposed a tax increase this spring but then voted against the budget, both when first proposed and in the July 9 final vote.

While happy to be avoiding a tax increase this year, Herndon said, he wanted a compromise on spending, such as providing only part of the $2.2 million in advance of state increases.

"I wanted us to give ourselves some time for the economy to possibly turn, for some of the funding to pick up with the state," Herndon said in an interview. "But I feel like I won the battle but lost the war, because where we're headed, we'll have to raise taxes."

In a future year, he means. Wilson and Brown had cautioned that the steep reduction in the school system's reserves cannot be maintained for more than one or two years.

The 2015 BOE millage now goes to the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners to be made part of the overall rate. While the school millage is not increasing, the commissioners have adopted a budget for county government that will require a tax increase.

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

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