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School system continues work on tentative FY16 budget
Pay raises, possible additions to middle school band weighed
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School system budget approval

• When: June 18, 7 p.m.
• Where: BoE central office
• About: School board members are expected to approve their FY16 budget and the millage rate at the meeting. The millage rate is expected to be the rollback rate.

Effingham County Board of Education members and administrators are continuing to pore over a projected $91.3 million budget that could include raises — and may add help for the middle school band programs.

School board members, who gave approval to a tentative budget last month, are expected to give final approval to the budget at their June 18 meeting. Along with it, they will set a millage rate, and Superintendent Randy Shearouse said he expects the rollback millage rate to be applied, meaning there will be no property tax increase.

Board members are weighing giving non-certified personnel a 5 percent raise on their current step level. The plan is to give a 5 percent bump over the next two years, according to Shearouse. Doing so would put the system’s lowest-paid workers at close to $10 an hour.

That could help the school system augment areas where it is short of personnel.

“We are having some difficulty finding cafeteria workers and bus drivers,” Shearouse said. “We feel we need to be as competitive as possible. We need to be competitive and make sure we have the best employees possible working with our children.”

Also on tap are increases for certified personnel. The state has not changed the salary schedule in several years, Shearouse noted, and the last cost-of-living allowance raise came in 2008-09. The state put more money in the funding formula last year, allowing the Effingham system to give a 3 percent bonus, with 1.5 percent in November and 1.5 percent in May.

The initial proposal called for another 3 percent hike for the coming fiscal year, but equalization funds from the state weren’t as much as before. The school system instead scaled the bump back to 2 percent.

Shearouse said the state has continued to put money in the quality basic education formula, with the goal of either eliminating furlough days or increasing salary.

“We’ve been fortunate we haven’t had furlough days in quite some time,” he said, “so we were able to give 3 percent last year and this year look at giving an additional 2 percent. We’re still looking at that and what they needs are and how that best fits into what the needs are.”

Striking up help for middle school band

But before board members sign off on the budget — with the 2016 fiscal year set to commence July 1 — they may try to squeeze in assistant band directors at each middle school to help with burgeoning demands.

“From an ex-principal’s standpoint, what they do with these kids is unbelievable,” said board member Beth Helmey, who along with Robert Grant pushed for adding middle school assistant band directors. “I would like to find the money to add one at each school.”

Currently, the high school band directors assist the middle school band directors in instruction.

“One thing that is very obvious is how the band programs at the high schools and middle schools work together,” Shearouse said. “The band directors work so well together and they really work as a team. It’s really a team concept with the way our band programs are being run in Effingham County, and I think you can see the results of that.”

Assistant Superintendent Greg Arnsdorff said the band programs essentially are seven-year programs, and not three- or four-year regimens. Helmey said adding an assistant band director could help with those just learning to play their instrument in the sixth grade.

Shearouse said by cutting the student numbers in half at the middle school, there would not be a lot of students those classes. 

At the high school and middle schools combined, more than 1,000 students are involved in various band classes. The high school band directors get a supplement plus additional days.

“You look at the numbers and it makes you wonder why we have two at the high school and we don’t have two at the middle school,” Grant said.

Chairman Lamar Allen pointed out that the middle schools did not request hiring assistant band directors.

“If it’s that important, why haven’t they requested it?” he asked.

“They probably figured they wouldn’t get it,” Helmey responded.

Helmey suggested going to a flat bonus, which she offered would be more beneficial for workers on the lower end of the pay scale.

“We have to consider what is more beneficial to the system,” she said.

Helmey added teachers might be willing to forego some of their salary increases if it would free up money to hire additional personnel.

“I’m going to be unpopular,” she said. “I’m also saying that if I can get some extra help, I can get another person somewhere, I want that person.”

Meeting the budget

As part of the proposed budget, each middle school will receive an additional assistant principal and a chorus teacher. During the downturn, as the school system pared costs, it cut back on middle school chorus but preserved the high school program.

“We’ve been fortunate with our band and music programs,” Shearouse said, “because we made sure when we were reduced and we did receive a great reduction in funding that we kept those band programs. Our board has always felt the arts were vitally important for the total success of the student. We’ve been able to support band through some of the worst times in recent memory.”

Other school systems were forced to eliminate many of their arts programs and offerings as money from the state and property taxes dried up, Shearouse added.

“There were many systems that cut those programs just to survive,” he said. “We knew it was such an important of the community and such an important part of a student’s total education that we did everything we could to make sure that we kept those programs in place. I think the results speak for themselves in what achievements they’ve made and making it a premier program in the state.”

The school system is anticipating receiving $60 million from state sources and approximately $26.8 million from local sources, such as property taxes. Payments in lieu of taxes are expected to account for $1.75 million, and equity transfers will make up the remaining $2.44 million.

The school system anticipated using $2 million from its fund balance to make last year’s $88.7 million, but ended up using much less. Also, revenues surpassed expected goals.

“We feel like things are on the mend,” Shearouse said. “When we went through the difficult times, we were able to make some reductions. Our fund balance has grown during this time. That’s helped us meet our budget needs, because we were able to grow that fund balance over the last several years.”