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School board is split on tax rate

Grady County Board of Education members appear split over how to fund the operations of the county’s public schools.
During a Sunday afternoon budget meeting the board, with the exception of board member Allen Jenkins, met with Superintendent Lee M. Bailey and Finance Officer Dan Broome to continue budget talks.
Bailey and Broome presented a proposal to increase the millage rate from 14.2 mills to 14.4 mills to fund in part the $29,913,901 proposed spending plan. Although this represents a millage rate hike it results in an actual 1.168 percent decrease in school taxes compared to 2012. Over the last two years school taxes as a percentage have dropped nearly 2.5 percent.
Due to a 2.5 percent drop in the taxable value of the county it would take a millage rate of 14.494 to generate the same revenue as 14.2 mills did in 2012.
Bailey and Broome were proposing a rate of 14.4 to generate as much revenue as possible without technically increasing taxes. Any rate above 14.494 would require three public hearings.
Even at 14.4 mills the school system would still collect $83,661 less in ad valorem taxes than it did in 2012.
Board Chairman Drew Pyrz and Board member Teresa Gee Harris both voiced support to set the tentative millage rate at 14.4 mills, but Vice Chairman Scott Higginbotham and Board member Jeff Worsham stated their preference to keep the millage at 14.2 mills.
Leaving the rate at 14.2 mills would cost the school system $181,962 in lost revenue.
“I’m not opposed to the 14.4 and as far as rates go look at the surrounding counties and we are low. I would prefer to give our kids as much opportunity as anywhere else,” Chairman Pyrz said.
Board member Worsham acknowledged that the taxable values for some local property owners had decreased and they would be paying less in taxes, but for property owners like himself whose values did not decrease those taxpayers would be paying more.
However, according to Finance Officer Broome the increase would be very small. For example a home with a fair market value of $150,000 has a taxable value of $60,000 and at 14.2 mills the school taxes would be $852 versus $864 at 14.4 mills, an increase of $12.
“Values will go up and once you raise the millage rate no one reduces them,” Worsham said.
“Everyone wants to compare our school system with other surrounding counties but you don’t want to compare millage rates,” board member Harris responded.
Chairman Pyrz said that commercial property values did not decline and as a business owner he was willing to pay a little more to put money back into the school system.
Over the last several years the salaries for teachers, administrators and school personnel has been cut $934,000 a year through a combination of furlough days and cuts in local supplements.
Vice Chairman Higginbotham recommended rather than increasing the millage rate to make up the budget deficit by drawing down on the system’s cash reserves.
Higginbotham also said he would support taking an additional $400,000 from reserves to pay school system employees a bonus, which would be the equivalent of three days of the five days pay school personnel have been cut.
Higginbotham said he would not support an increase to 14.4 mills without a plan to move forward to create something similar to the Scholar’s Academy in Thomasville or introducing E-books or other technology improvements.
“We’ve had a change in leadership with the hiring of Mr. Bailey and we need to show people we are moving in that area, but right now we’re in the mud and spinning our wheels,” Higginbotham said.
Board member Harris challenged him on his remarks and stated “You think we’re stuck in the mud but you’re not willing to invest in our system.”
Higginbotham clarified his remarks and stated that with the new superintendent he believed the system would begin to move in the right direction.
“I’m not talking down the whole system,” he added.
Also Sunday the board discussed the need to adopt new math textbooks for the next school term, but there are no more Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax proceeds to pay for the new texts, which have been used for the last several years to pay for new books and materials.
Assistant Superintendent Demetrius Cox said the scaled down budget for the math adoption would be approximately $250,000.
Mrs. Cox said the purchase of new textbooks could be postponed but she recommended moving forward if possible since the school system is addressing the new Common Core Curriculum.
Vice Chairman Higginbotham asked Superintendent Bailey if he could find $250,000 to cut from the budget to cover the cost of the textbooks and the superintendent said no.
The board then began discussing the option of using E-books, but Bailey noted that the cost of a textbook would be less than a tablet for each student.
“We need a plan before we move to E-books, but we need to start looking now,” board member Harris said.
During the budget meeting Sunday, Broome told board members the system would likely close its books for June 30 and have an additional $500,000 to add to reserves due in part to increased state funding received in the mid-term allotment. The finance officer is projecting total reserves to be about $3.4 million as of June 30.
Vice Chairman Higginbotham recommended paying for the new math texts out of reserves in addition to the wage improvement for school personnel and shoring up the 2013-2014 budget deficit and still maintain the 14.2 millage rate.
Board Chairman Pyrz said the board should maintain the existing furlough days and pay the additional pay as a bonus to system employees in a lump sum.
Broome concurred and said if the board added back furlough days the system would have to increase the budget next year to include the additional payroll expense.
Superintendent Bailey reminded board members they were only putting back money that had already been taken from the system employees. “We’re still not giving back all that we’ve cut, but it’s a start,” he said.
The finance officer was asked if he was comfortable to withdraw so much from reserves and Broome said when he first came to work at the system the system had no reserves and was forced to borrow money each year in advance of tax receipts.
The board also discussed the need to renew the current Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
A referendum for renewing the penny sales tax would need to be held next November to maintain a seamless collection of the tax.
“A whole lot depends on that money. There is no money in the budget this year for buses or textbooks because we don’t have the sales taxes to buy them,” Bailey said.
Broome described the ESPLOST as a “key to our future.”
In addition to trying to find a way to improve wages for employees on the low end of the pay scale as suggested by Superintendent Bailey, the board also discussed the increasing cost of providing health insurance to non-certified personnel.
Vice Chairman Higginbotham suggested shifting more of the non-certified staff to temporary employment agencies, which have been used to hire janitors.
Assistant Superintendent Kermit Gilliard noted that the system has not hired paraprofessionals through the temp agency like has been done with janitors.
The system has contracted with Dollar Business Solutions to provide janitorial staff and while the workers make more per hour than the school system would pay for janitorial staff, the temp workers receive no benefits.
By using more temp workers Higginbotham said the system can save on the expense of employee benefits and end the “cradle to grave philosophy” that government will take care of everyone.
“When Obamacare takes effect it would be to our benefit to get them off our payroll and put them on the temp service. Most of the principals have been happy with the temp help,” Vice Chairman Higginbotham said.
Board member Worsham also addressed the need to restore cuts to the school media centers. After a brief discussion it was decided to maintain current funding, but to investigate future investment of new technology in the media centers to increase the variety of books available to students.
The board meets next Tuesday at 7 p.m. and will vote to set a tentative millage rate. Whatever rate the board sets can be reduced, but the rate cannot be increased. In the meantime the board will continue to fine tune the proposed budget.

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