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School board may ponder slight millage hike
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Assistant Superintendent Gregg Arnsdorff finished a promising moments presentation earlier at the Effingham County Board of Education’s meeting Wednesday on the most recent official and unofficial test scores, most of which saw impressive gains this year.

Then, the reality of next year landed heavy in front of the Effingham County School Board as Superintendent Randy Shearouse presented two scenarios to for the fiscal year 2012 budget: one with a millage increase and one without.

“Long term,” Shearouse said Thursday, “I think not having any furlough days, not cutting any programs, not having anymore reductions would be the best for the school system at this point. It would be different had we not had any cuts in the past, had we not already gone through some difficult times.”

The superintendent’s office and the BoE have been mulling over numbers for more than two months and are awaiting projections of the property tax digest to make their final decision, which is expected to decrease. Without final numbers, the BoE is bracing for a $500,000-$900,000 loss in property tax revenue if they maintain the current millage rate at 15.333, where it has been for the last two years.

To fill that gap, they must either increase the millage rate enough to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year, $25,954,522, or make additional cuts in the form of furlough days and programs.

“So far, all indications are that it’s going to be a minimal amount,” Shearouse said of increasing the millage rate. “And for a minimal amount, to continue to keep everyone employed and to keep all our programs in place and for our employees who’ve endured furlough days for two years, I think that would be a good thing.”

If they increase the millage rate enough to bring in $26 million, the budget would balance without furlough days or cuts to programs.

If the millage rate stays the same, Effingham County schools could experience more reductions from the state next year in equalization funding, which is meant to make up for the wealth discrepancies between districts. A system’s millage rate is taken into consideration in order to bolster financial autonomy among school systems, and funding is reduced from the state if the millage remains low.

This year, Effingham received approximately $11 million in cuts from the state, with $8 million in austerity cuts and $3 million in equalization cuts. Last year, state reductions were $9.6 million, and with this year’s reductions, the system has seen its state funding diminish $42 million since 2003.

The school board has rolled back the millage rate every year since 2006, when it went from 15.86 to 15.57. From 2006 to 2007, they maintained the 15.57 mills and saw a revenue increase as the tax digest expanded. In 2008, it was 15.468 mills, and for the past two years, the system has set its mills at 15.333, though the digest decreased in FY 2011, bring $420,000 less.

“We have been very careful when we’ve looked at the millage rate, we’ve tried to hold it very steady, and it has held very steady over the past six years,” Shearouse said.

When the BoE began looking at the FY 2012 budget, they anticipated a deficit of nearly $5 million. They reduced expenses by realizing $450,000 in miscellaneous savings and transferring the $900,000 equity payment on Marlow Elementary to the education-special purpose local option sales tax (ESPLOST) budget, bringing total expenses to $83,099,361.

By using $2.1 million from the federal Education Jobs Fund and $861,887 in mid-term allotment state funds saved this year, the system freed up additional revenue to balance the budget so long as property tax revenue remains at $26 million.

“We’re operating very lean now,” Shearouse said, “and we’ve already made some big reductions, whether you talk about staffing, supplies, materials, shifting money over to ESPLOST; we’ve done a lot of things to try to make our budget balance. If we hadn’t done those things, I’d say ‘Yeah, we need to find somewhere to reduce our spending.’

“But across the board for the last two years, we’ve had a reduction in spending. So I feel like at this point the best thing for the school system would be to get the budget to balance through bringing in the same amount of money we’ve brought in in the past.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, board member Mose Mock inquired if any of the maintenance and operation budget, a $5.8 million line item, could be moved to ESPLOST. Slade Helmly, director of administrative services, explained that most of the money went to pay energy bills, a part went to salaries and $1 million went to custodial costs.

“Out of the $1million that’s in that budget that’s expended under maintenance, in my estimation, we might could get 10 percent out of there that we’re missing to be charged to SPLOST,” Helmly said. “And we could certainly dig down deeper.”

“All I can say is, we’ll keep looking and hopefully we can find something between now and then that will help us,” said school board Chairman Lamar Allen.

The board will vote on the budget at its June 16 meeting.

“It is a tough decision that the board’s going to have to eventually make,” Shearouse said. “When you look at what’s best for the kids, the decision, based on that, it becomes a little easier.”