The Effingham County School System is planning on a bigger budget for the coming fiscal year — but perhaps with a lower millage rate.
Board of Education members were presented a proposed budget that will accounts for more than $94.2 million in revenues and nearly $97.1 million in expenses.
Superintendent Randy Shearouse said he asked the school system’s departments to keep their spending increases to 5 percent, except for instructional services.
“We did go back and challenge them to 5 percent as a maximum increase, except for instruction because we wanted to put more money there,” he said.
Instruction expenses are projected to be $66.1 million.
“Instruction is certainly the lion’s share of our budget,” Shearouse said.
The increase in instruction is 6.4 percent.
“We’re grateful for any increase,” said Travis NeSmith, the school system executive director of instruction and technology.
According to the school system’s projections, the portion of local revenue for the school system will be approximately $28 million. This year’s local revenues are nearly $28.7 million, with property taxes expecting to provide $25.2 million.
But the millage rate, currently set at its rollback rate of 16.435, could be set at 16.204 for the coming fiscal year and may be even lower at 16.026.
“That’s a positive,” Shearouse said. “A lot of that is caused by all the growth.”
Included in the draft budget is a 3 percent raise for certified personnel and a 5 percent raise for non-certified employees. The 5 percent is scheduled for three years, and fiscal year 2017 is the second year in that plan. There also are step raises for qualifying individuals.
The system also is funding four new positions at Rincon, Ebenezer, South Effingham and Springfield elementary schools, Reading Recovery positions at Rincon, Sand Hill and Springfield elementaries, nine special education positions, seven new teachers at Effingham County High School, five at South Effingham High and 10 positions for the new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) addition at the Effingham College and Career Academy.
There are 2,100 students in the system classified as special needs.
“Our population is growing and we have students we need to serve,” NeSmith said. “Our special ed budget has taken a hit the last couple years.”
Aside from the teachers needed for the STEM academy, the school system also is looking to add $25,000 for equipment and add $20,000 to cover dues and fees for the ECCA faculty to attend training they may need.
“I don’t believe we can build a program for the students and have it at the level we want and we expect without having them go through some kind of training,” NeSmith said.
“With the STEM academy, we felt we needed some new materials there,” Shearouse said. “You don’t want to cut your instructional budget.”
Georgia Southern University is willing to partner with the school systems for a development workshop on STEM’s interdisciplinary benefits.
“It’s great we’re hiring English, science, social studies math teachers. But if we can’t get them to work together, then we’re defeating the whole purpose of STEM,” NeSmith said. “They really need that team bonding to come together. The people we’re hiring are from different places with different experiences.”
The extra positions at the high schools could enable teachers there to have two planning periods, Shearouse explained.
The school system also has grown by about 2.2 percent, or 244 students, since last March.
The system’s equalization grant — provided to low-wealth systems experiencing growth — has gone from just under $6 million to more than $7 million.
“We’re growing, and our digest hasn’t changed that much are two reasons why,” said Shearouse of the equalization grant increase.
The state’s Quality Basic Education provision to the county is expected to grow from $59.5 million to $64.1million. Shearouse said the state is working to reduce austerity costs.
For its current budget, the school system was projecting to use $2.4 million of fund balance to make up the difference between revenues and expenditures. However, the system may not have to tap into any of its fund balance after all.
“We’re not going to have to use any of that fund balance that we were planning to use for this year because of our revenues,” Shearouse said. “That’s certainly great, great news. We’re also even expecting to collect a little more than the fund balance we were expecting to use. You’re still looking at growth in the fund balance.”
For the FY17 budget, the system is projecting using $2.8 million in fund balance. Still, the fund balance is,” expected to grow from $10.5 million to $11.4 million.
“We’re also even expecting to collect a little more than the fund balance we were expecting to use,” Shearouse said. “You’re still looking at growth in the fund balance.”
Effingham also will get about $154,000 from the state in a school bus grant, which comes close to the cost of two new buses.
The county also got an unexpected boost this year with $800,000 in a mid-year adjustment from the state because of student growth.
“My projection is we’re going to get some type of mid-term,” Shearouse said. “We’re going to grow by 200 some students based on what we’ve seen lately.”
The school board also likely will install a new phone network throughout the school system.
“We maintain a phone system at each facility, and that is nightmarish at best,” said technology coordinator Jeff Lariscy. “The platform we have was great at the time. Nortel was bought years ago by Avaya which slowly killed the platform. All the parts I buy now are gray market parts. So we’re going to have to take some SPLOST money and buy a new phone system.”
The TAVT, pegged at $1.5 million, is being projected at $1.8 million. “A mild, mild, mild winter,” Shearouse said, has reduced sales tax revenues. The sale of natural gas is a big component of the sales tax revenue stream.
Payments in lieu of taxes are going from $1.75 million for the current year to $1.65 million for the coming year. Three firms — Georgia-Pacific, Georgia Power and Georgia Transformer Corporation — have PILTs.
“These are always projections,” Shearouse said. “But right now we’re looking pretty good and we didn’t have to use fund balance.”