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School board holds the line on millage
But board members worry school taxes may go up next year
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The Effingham County Board of Education approved its budget for fiscal year 2012 with no change to its millage rate.

“We wanted to send a message to the people of Effingham that we feel your pain,” board member Mose Mock said.

The budget balances with approximately $6,000 separating $82,940,292 in state, local and special revenues from expenses, and the board expressed anxiety over the small window and the next fiscal year.

“It’s hard to continue to go the direction we’re going in,” said board member Troy Alford. “But I’m telling you: put it on your prayer list, because we’re in for a long year. If it doesn’t get any better, I can almost assure you this time next year, we’re going to have to raise these taxes.”

Prayer and optimism were common themes in the meeting.

“Our hope is the state’s economy is going to pick up and we’re going to start getting more state revenue. But we have not seen that over the last couple of years,” said Superintendent Randy Shearouse.

The board and Shearouse have been combing the budget for savings since April. Once the digest was published last month, the BoE advertised two different scenarios: one of 15.72 mills and the other at 15.33 mills, the same rate as FY11 and FY10. The .39 mill increase was the highest the board could raise the rate without it being considered a tax increase, bringing in no additional local revenue.

Last year, the board lost $577,000 by staying at 15.33 mills and this year, with the same rate, it is projected to lose another $413,000.

“A lot of systems have cut music programs out, art programs out, paraprofessionals out, tremendous cuts that I do think affect the educational system in their counties,” Shearouse said. “And fortunately, we’ve not had to do that, and we’ve not raised the millage rate. This board has been able to manage this budget quite well without those huge layoffs like a lot of those systems have had to have. We hope that we can continue it, but, as Mr. Alford said, it is going to be tough.”

The board cut $100,000 from the fuel budget and another $50,000 in maintenance to help cushion the loss in property tax revenue. This, along with other savings realized in areas such as principal supply funds and professional development, put expenses in line with revenue.

Transportation director Jimmy Helmly said his department spent approximately $12,000 per week in fuel in September and $27,000 per week in May for 1,000 gallons of unleaded and 7,000 in diesel.

“From the year before, when we set the budget to when school ended this year, it about doubled what we were paying a week for fuel,” said Helmly. “It’s a real volatile area to try to figure out what the fuel budget will be.”

However, the budget does not include furlough days for employees, who endured 11 in the last two school years, something the superintendent had his eye on from the beginning of FY12 discussions.

“This does work,” Shearouse said. “We are concerned about the future in some ways. We’ve been getting huge state cuts over the last several years. The digest (is) decreasing. We worked hard at (the budget). The budget took longer this year than I ever remember it taking to try to get it to work out and it’s been a difficult task. But this is something that we can work with, and we’ll just have to start planning for next year.”

State austerity and equalization cuts hit Effingham hard again this year. With a 1 percent reduction in quality basic education funds, the state withheld $8 million and Effingham received $2.2 million less than the year before, as the system continues to grow. Effingham’s equalization grant from the state, which is meant to make up for low local revenues in low wealth systems, shrunk from $6.1 million to $5.5 million.

To make up for these losses the budget utilizes state and federal funds saved but not budgeted from FY11, adding them as revenue.

The board transferred $2.1 million in federal Edu-jobs funds and $861,000 in a state mid-term allotment into the general fund for FY12.

The board also transferred $350,000 in capital payments on Marlow Elementary into E-SPLOST.

A number of citizens turned up at Tuesday’s meeting voicing concerns about the school board raising taxes.

Chairman Lamar Allen explained that the school board has not raised taxes and that property taxes are the only source a school system has to raise local dollars.

“By law, the only place that we have to get money is property taxes,” Allen said. “That’s it. The state will not allow us to put another one cent on for operations so we could lower your taxes. They won’t let us do that. So there’s no other options out there.”

Mock told those in attendance that he and his fellow board member “agonized” over the budget.

“We don’t want our system to go down, but at the same time we know what’s going on out there,” Mock said of the ailing economy.