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BOE bumps up tentative millage to 14.2 mills

For over two hours Tuesday night the Grady Board of Education wrestled with upping the ad valorem tax rate, cutting expenses, and possibly budgeting an appropriation for Roddenbery Memorial Library.
In the end the board voted unanimously to adopt the $35,235,919 operating budget for 2011-2012, but the board was split on increasing the millage rate from 12.9 to a tentative rate of 14.2 mills.
Board member Scott Higginbotham broke with the other members of the board in opposing setting the tentative rate at 14.2 mills as recommended by Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis.
Even at 14.2 mills, the system will have to dip into its cash reserves to the tune of over $1.4 million to cover the difference between budgeted expenses and budgeted revenues.
Higginbotham said the school system was requiring county taxpayers to “suck it up for us one more time.” He stated his opinion that there are areas that could be cut rather than asking for taxpayers to make up the deficit.
Dr. Pharis said the board could maintain the 12.9 millage rate but it would require pulling more out of reserves. School officials predict the budget situation for the public schools here next year will be even greater than in years past.
“As far as next year we are looking at taking a balanced approach with cuts in personnel, hopefully through attrition, using our cash reserves and another small millage rate increase if necessary,” Dr. Pharis said.
The superintendent warned the board if they use the majority of the cash reserves to cover this year there will be no reserves to dip into to cover anticipated shortages next year.
Finance Officer Dan Broome reported to board members that since 2009 the system had cut expenditures by $2.4 million and that revenue had dropped over $3 million.
The school system finance officer also said that for most taxpayers their tax bill for school taxes would actually be less than last year, but he acknowledged that owners of commercial property would experience basically an 11 percent increase.
Broome said that a commercial property at $100,000 taxable value would pay $130 more this year than last year.
Board member Drew Pyrz asked if the board had the flexibility to increase furlough days as a possible way of easing the increased tax burden on local property owners.
Broome said that the system saves approximately $100,000 per day for certified staff and about $17,000 per day for non-certified staff.
Pyrz also asked if the finance officer and superintendent felt comfortable going back and revising all line items that the system had come under budget consistently for the last couple of years.
“That would be a significant amount of money,” Pyrz said.
Dr. Pharis said he was not opposed to that, but noted that the board would have to be prepared if the system busted its budget in those line item categories. Broome advised against it because he said those savings were not guaranteed and in areas where the system was able to under spend that was money that was used to build up reserves.
“Ten years ago I would have never had told you to use reserves to fund operations, but we are living in different times now,” Broome said.
The finance officer said he looked at holding the line on expenditures and banking that money in reserves as a way of preventing going up on the millage rate each year.
“In a way we are giving back to the taxpayers by using the fund balance now. I’m not saying we should be banking a lot of money, but our reserves are low compared to neighboring school systems,” Broome said.
School personnel have analyzed the budget and determined that the school system employs only nine certified employees more than the public schools earned based on the state allotment sheet.
Although it is difficult to identify those specific positions, Dr. Pharis said that seven of them would be the county’s instructional coordinators. The superintendent said he could not recommend cutting out those positions. However, he said if it got to the point next year where positions must be cut and attrition was not sufficient he would give the principals the option of cutting a classroom teacher or some other position like instructional coordinators.
Broome also pointed out that by increasing the millage rate slightly the system’s state funding would likely increase next year. “One year we cut the millage rate and the following year our state funds dropped $700,000,” Broome said.
Chairman Cuy Harrell also pointed out that the state would cut funding to the school based on increased wealth. Broome agreed and said there is a balance between keeping the millage rate too low or raising it too high in order to maximize state funding.
“We told taxpayers when the voters passed the SPLOST we would do everything in our power to maintain the millage rate. We did that the first year even though we have substantial cuts from the state. We did that the second year and we had even more cuts from the state. Now, as part of balanced approach we need to increase the millage due to the drop in the tax digest,” Dr. Pharis said.
Board member Teresa Gee Harris made the case Tuesday night to include some funding for Roddenbery Memorial Library in the 2011-2012 budget.
Calling it an “investment in our kids,” Ms. Gee Harris said she wanted to the see the school system partner with the public library. Dr. Pharis said he was not opposed to the idea and commented, “I believe the library leadership wants to work with us and support us.”
Pharis also noted that cuts to the school media center budget had also been made, but he still believes putting in a line item of $25,000 to be used to partner with the library for professional services would benefit both the schools and the library.
Board member Higginbotham wanted to know if the $25,000 would benefit children more if it were invested in the school libraries as opposed to the public library.
Board member Pyrz said it was his understanding that the media centers had taken a cut for two years, but the media specialists did not know it was going to be forever.
Asst. Superintendent Martha Fowler responded that the budgets for materials and supplies for the school system media centers in the proposed budget was at the same level it had been for the last two years. The only difference she said was money that had been budgeted to purchase a software program over two years. “This year we are paying for the renewal, about $10,000 to $12,000, but we didn’t put back in the $26,000 that had been in there for the software purchase,” Ms. Fowler said.
Higginbotham requested Dr. Pharis research the proposal of using that money to keep school libraries open an extra hour after school and determine if that would be more beneficial to the students in public schools.
Dr. Pharis said it was not his plan to just pay out the recommended $25,000 to the library on a monthly basis. He said it would be placed in a line item and used to pay for professional services.
The superintendent said that newly appointed Roddenbery Memorial Library Director Pamela Grigg and he had discussed the possibility, but he would go back to her and bring back a specific plan for the board to consider.
Although there is currently no appropriation for the library in the budget tentatively adopted Tuesday night, Dr. Pharis says the board could amend the budget at any time to add the funding for the library. He also noted there was no plan to fund after-school and summer school programs and that would need to be a part of a budget amendment at a later date.
School members pushed forward with a tentative adoption of the budget and millage rate and have set a called meeting for 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, August 4 for final adoption. However, the board did not schedule another meeting to take up the budget or discuss budget related issues between now and then.

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