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School system employees may get another raise
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Effingham County School System employees received a 3-percent pay increase this year, and could get another one in next year’s budget.

A 3-percent raise for employees was part of the $91.3 million budget for fiscal year 2016 that school officials presented Thursday to the Effingham County Board of Education.

“I think it’s important,” Superintendent Randy Shearouse said of the proposed raises. “This is the board’s first look at the budget, and they’ll certainly have to weigh in on what they think the importance of that is. They’ll have to look at the whole picture of the budget before making those kind of decisions.”

The school board will discuss the FY16 budget again at its April 1 meeting and take public comment at its May 21 and June 18 meetings. The board is scheduled to approve the budget and millage rate June 18, and the new fiscal year will begin July 1.

The employee pay raises would total $2,050,122, contributing to a $3.9 million increase in expenses from the school system’s current budget. Also included in that are $769,383 in step raises for eligible teachers, a mandated $590,989 increase in the employer match for the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia and a $491,741 hike in health insurance for classified employees, at $150 per month per employee.

The Effingham County School System is slated to receive $60.4 million in state funding for FY16, a $3 million increase from this year. However, the school district’s total projected revenue of $89,677,558 falls $1.6 million short of the budgeted $91,315,847 in expenses.

“We’re thankful for the $3 million increase from the state, and it sounds like a lot of money,” Shearouse said. “But when you look at the non-certified health insurance, the step raises, the TRS — all that adds up to a lot of money, and it takes about half of that $3 million away.”

One option to offset the $1.6 million budget shortfall is for the board of education to dip into its general fund reserve, which is calculated to be around $9 million at the end of the current fiscal year. The board approved using $2 million from its fund balance in this year’s budget but is on track to spend just $1.1 million of that, according to Shearouse.

The tentative FY16 budget has a rollback millage rate of 16.312, which is projected to generate just over $25 million in property tax revenue. The rate will not result in a tax increase for county residents, school officials said.

The school board expects to receive a preliminary look at the county’s property tax digest in time for its April 16 meeting. Effingham’s total property tax value declined by $223 million in just two years following the economic downturn in 2010, but has begun to climb back up to a projected $1.576 billion for the FY16 budget.

“Hopefully we’ve reached the bottom there,” said Slade Helmly, the school system’s executive director of administrative services. “(The digest) is not going up as quickly as it went down.”

The school system budget does not yet include the cost of salaries and benefits for any increase in personnel. Teaching positions could be added at some schools, and the board of education already has approved hiring assistant principals at each of the county’s three middle schools.

“So there will be some additions to that $3.9 million (increase in expenses),” Helmly said.

In light of the budget increase for non-certified employees’ health coverage, board member Vickie Decker asked if the school system has considered bidding out its health insurance. Helmly replied that it likely won’t be a serious consideration.

“If you leave the state health plan in any fashion, there’s never any opportunity to get back,” he said. “That’s a state rule.”

Helmly stressed to the board of education that the budget will undergo changes over the next three months, since school system staff are still finalizing figures and the county tax digest is not in hand. The school system also does not yet know how much it will receive in equalization, the funding the state provides to school districts that are less wealthy than other districts.

“This is just a draft,” said school board Chairman Lamar Allen. “It’s where we have to start. It will look different in the end … hopefully.”

School budget calendar
• April 1: School board meeting, 2 p.m. — budget discussion
• April 16: School board meeting, 7 p.m. — receive preliminary property tax digest from county tax assessor
• May 21: School board meeting, 7 p.m. — public comment on FY16 budget, tentative approval of budget and millage rate
• June 18: School board meeting, 7 p.m. — public comment on budget, final approval of budget and millage rate
• July 1: Fiscal year 2016 begins