The Fayette County Board of Education is anticipating increased revenues based on projections that the county tax digest could increase by 10-percent or more. As property values and resulting revenues rise, so has the projected budget for the school district. One board member, Barry Marchman, is recommending the school board consider reducing taxes and curtailing the proposed budget increases.
The school board currently taxes at the maximum allowable rate of 20 mills.
At that rate, the expected total property tax revenue, if the tax digest does see a 10-percent growth, would be about $78.8 million.
Years of tax base decline or stagnation brought austerity cuts at the state and local levels and precipitated school closures and personnel layoffs. Meanwhile, school enrollment figures have been flat or declined somewhat in that time period.
The school board now has to decide how to deal with an improving fiscal picture now that revenues are returning and prior cost-cutting measures have allowed the district to pile up a 10-percent budget reserve of around $18 million with an additional $9.5 million beyond that.
The proposed budget for next year, which continues to change as staff incorporates different considerations regarding needs for staffing, has been set at around $184.7 million as compared to last year’s budget of $170.5 million. Part of the increase, nearly $4 million, would come from proposed hirings of additional teachers and support positions like parapros and secretaries, as well as a 1.5-percent or 2-percent cost of living pay raise for personnel.
As Superintendent Jody Barrow said at the most recent school board meeting, decisions about the budget have to balance the desires like reduced classroom sizes and competitive teacher pay while remaining fiscally responsible.
Marchman said he had done research into other “high performing” school districts and found they spend an average of between $8,100 and $8,300 per student. This budget, he said, would have Fayette spending around $9,100 per student.
“I think that’s really out of line with where we ought to be. I’m a little uncomfortable approving an additional $20 million to the budget when the student population has stayed the same,” Marchman said.
Marchman recommended the board consider reducing the millage rate and reducing the budget.
Board member Leonard Presberg said people he speaks to in the community typically ask for smaller class sizes and increased offerings rather than reduced taxes.
“I would say when I am out at schools and talking to parents and talking to community members, what I hear people saying is ‘I want smaller class sizes, I want this back, I want that back,'” Presberg said referencing prior austerity cuts. “I realize that I only see certain people, but no one ever is complaining about their taxes. They’re complaining that they’re not getting enough in their schools.”
Marchman said he saw a difference between monies earned through SPLOST, which is voted on by residents, and monies collected through property taxes.
“In the SPLOST money, I would agree that is money the taxpayers have given us and want us to have. The millage rate, that’s something we take, that’s not something they give us. I just wonder if it’s prudent for us to keep taking the maximum amount required by law. I’m just saying it might be time to think about a millage reduction,” Marchman said.
Dan Colwell served as interim superintendent before joining the board during a six-month period that was described as historic for the fiscal challenges facing the school system. The school closures and personnel cuts that came during that time, he said, were part of “eight years of not spending nearly enough” on education.
“For the last eight years, at least one of the things I’ve heard is we’ve had to balance our budgets on the backs of employees,” Colwell said. “We’ve asked them to take pay cuts, we cut their benefits, we’ve not given them pay raises. We couldn’t afford to do so. Now that we are enjoying a little bit better times fiscally, I think it’s time for us to catch up to what other systems are doing.”
Colwell pointed out the frequently discussed concern that teacher salaries in Fayette are among the lowest in the metro Atlanta area.
“Those are the systems that we compete with to hire good teachers. All of the research indicates that the top priority for student performance is having an outstanding teacher in each classroom. If we’re going to compete with other school systems, I don’t think we can cut back on things like teacher salaries. In fact, we need to do whatever we can to increase those,” Colwell said.
The school board will be continuing to discuss next year’s budget with a goal for establishing a tentative budget by the beginning of June.