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School board ponders budget options
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Although they will be cutting it close, the Effingham County School Board approved a balanced tentative budget for fiscal year 2012 that miraculously restores a full calendar year for K-12 students and teachers.

“You hadn’t really heard a whole lot about teachers wanting their days back, but when they did the survey, as far as improving morale, that was something very, very important that was mentioned,” said Superindentent Randy Shearouse.

In a tentative budget passed at the BoE’s May 19 meeting, anticipated revenues total $83,132,803 and fall $33,442 shy of expenditures, projected at $83,099,361. All of this is contingent upon the schools collecting the same amount of tax dollars as last year: $25,954,522.

State allotment sheets approved by Gov. Nathan Deal recently indicate another 1 percent cut in quality basic education (QBE) funding from the state. The BoE and the superintendent’s office also were disappointed to learn of a loss in the system’s state equalization funding grant, which intends to allow counties with lower property tax bases to fund education more comparably to counties with higher tax bases, from $6.1 million last year to $5.5 million this year.

“We really feel like we’re at a point there that there’s not a lot of places we can go,” Shearouse told board members about expenditure cuts. “You  have to have ample supplies for you teachers, you have to have some travel funds, you have to  have some of these things in place and it’s just difficult when you keep getting hit by the state to maintain what we have.”

The tentative budget shows savings realized mainly through transferring the nearly $900,000 equity payment on the Marlow Learning Center from the general fund to the E-SPLOST budget and from the $2.1 million federal Education Jobs Fund that the board saved in the fall.

The central office staff worked diligently to find $451,000 in savings by cutting expenses, including reducing funds for professional development and principals’ supply funds for their schools. Nearly $900,000 in savings was found from the loss of 16 positions through attrition that will not be replaced, adding to the 81 positions that have dissolved through attrition since 2010.

“We are about where we can be as far as employees,” said Shearouse. “We’ve increased the class sizes. Those things have already been done. If the board is cut deep again from the state, they will have some real, real difficult decisions to make.”

Thus far in the economic downturn, the Effingham County school system has not had to lay off employees, only eliminating the graduation coach positions last year, and it has been able to move teachers around as positions lost through attrition were not refilled.

“But going through all this, keeping the millage rate at a range where we’ve had it for several years now, we’ve been able to conduct and run our school business while we’re still growing just by cutting expenses and doing with a lot less,” Shearouse said. “So I feel like the board has done a good job with making sure that we’re spending the money the right way, keeping our folks employed and really taking care of our teachers.”

But the entire budget hinges on maintaining the $26 million in property tax revenue. This implies that if the county’s tax-digest goes down as it is projected to by as much as 5 percent, then the board will have to vote in increase the millage rate.

“So we would have to vote on a millage rate increase, or we’d have to find additional coverage,” said board member Vickie Decker.

“So you get cut both ways,” said BoE Chairman Lamar Allen. “If what you collect here goes down, then what you get from the state goes down.”

The school board avoided this last year, keeping the rate at 15.333 as it has been for the past several years. But by doing so, they saw a decrease in their equalization allotment, which factors a system’s local tax revenue raised per student.

“This will be the second year there’s been a decrease in the digest,” Shearouse said. “The state cut us another 1 percent as well. So it’s everything hitting us at one time, and we’ve been making those huge cuts for the last couple of years. We’ve already had austerity cuts, but then you’re going to add another 1 percent on top of that.”

Shearouse said that if the tax digest declines 4-5 percent, then the mill increase for schools would be approximately $32 per $100,000 valued in a home.

While the school board feels it can squeak by in FY12, members and the superintendent find themselves dreading the outlook for FY13.

Said Allen: “I know we’re looking at this here now, but you’ve got to look a little bit ahead to 2012-13. It’s probably going to be as bad as we are now. I don’t see any money statewide that they’re going to gain, not a lot of money that they’re going to gain between now and then. If they get any money they’re going to put it aside for a rainy day; that’s what they’re gonna do first.

“Next year, we’re looking at it liable to double on us and that’s going to be really bad. So think a little bit ahead. Even though we’re working on 11-12, 12-13, I personally don’t see it getting any better. I would hope it would, but there’s no sign of it. So you’re going to have to take everything to make this, then the next one is going to be really, really bad. One of those no-win situations, I’m afraid.”

Shearouse echoed this sentiment saying that while asking for more tax dollars is never easy, they have to anticipate conditions getting worse before they get better.

The board will take public comment on the tentative budget at its June 1 meeting at 2 p.m. and hopes to approve it at its June 16 meeting, which begins at 7 p.m.