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School board adopts balanced budget
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The Effingham County Board of Education has approved a balanced budget for the 2014 fiscal year, of $83.4 million in revenue and in expenses.

At its meeting Thursday, the school board adopted a millage rate of 16.897, the same as for the current budget year. The FY14 budget goes into effect July 1.

"We are fortunate to be able to balance the budget without raising taxes or having furlough days," BoE Chairman Lamar Allen said.

The same cannot be said for a number of school districts in Georgia. The Savannah-Chatham County School Board, for example, has proposed a millage rate hike that could raise school property taxes by 10 percent, and the Bulloch County School System plans to offset a budget shortfall by pulling $3.5 million from the district’s fund balance and furloughing teachers and staff for two days.

Just last year, the Effingham County Board of Education relied on nearly $2 million of special purpose local option sales tax funds to balance the budget. No such measure was necessary this year, thanks largely to Effingham receiving an increase in equalization funding from the state.

In addition, Superintendent Randy Shearouse said, the school district has taken cost-cutting steps in recent years, such as eliminating some staff positions, closing its pre-kindergarten centers and moving pre-K classes back to school sites, and changing from 4 x 4 block scheduling to a seven-period class day.

"We’re operating as a very lean system," Shearouse said. "We were able to reduce some expenditures over time, and now that we are getting a little more money, that’s allowed us not to have furlough days like a lot of folks are and allowed us to keep the millage rate the same.

"The big thing is, planning has been in place," Shearouse continued. "We’ve had to do some things that are painful, but I think, in the end, they’ve really helped us be a better school system."

As was the case with the previous FY14 budget discussions, no one from the public commented prior to the school board unanimously approving the budget and millage rate.

"I think that shows that people have faith in what we do, that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, when nobody shows up to a hearing on an $83 million budget," Allen said.

School officials initially expected Effingham County would receive about $5 million in equalization — funding the state provides to lower-wealth school districts — after receiving $5.5 million for fiscal year 2012 and $4.7 million for FY13. Instead, the state approved a $2.7 million increase for Effingham, to $7.4 million.

"Fortunately, the equalization really made the big difference for us this year," Shearouse said.

Also helping balance the budget is $806,000 from the state’s midterm adjustment. School districts receive midterm funds if they have an increase in students enrolled during the school year or, in Effingham’s case, growth in special courses such as CTAE (Career, Technical and Agricultural Education), gifted program and special education.

Though the millage rate will remain at 16.897, school officials are projecting a slight increase in property tax revenue — to $25.1 million — as Effingham County’s tax digest has grown. The housing market has begun to rebound, and Shearouse previously cited a report that home buyers closed on 75 houses in Effingham in April.

"If we can maintain that trend of new growth occurring in the county, that would certainly help our budget," Shearouse said.

The $83.4 million in projected expenses are an increase of 3 percent, or $2.4 million, from the current budget. That includes $643,585 for step raises owed to teachers for their years of experience, but much of it stems from rising insurance costs — for people and vehicles.

Health coverage for non-certified employees is increasing by $150 per month per employee , costing the district an additional $575,000 for FY14. The budget also includes a $204,000 hike for school bus insurance.

State Farm is ceasing its coverage of school bus fleets, so the Effingham County School System is now taking bids for school bus insurance providers. The district currently pays $350-$400 a year to insure each bus, according to finance director Ron Wilson, and school officials anticipate a significant rate hike after State Farm stops covering Effingham County’s school buses in February.

"A lot of the increases in our budget are certainly justifiable and easy to explain," Shearouse said. "It seems like insurance — whether it’s bus insurance or health insurance — is really hitting the school system hard this year."