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BoE risks plenty with same millage
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Let me be the first — and probably only — to say: I am deeply disappointed in the Effingham County Board of Education.

Tuesday they decided to appease taxpayers and keep their millage rate at 15.33 rather than bump it up .39 to bring in the same amount of revenue as last year. Raising the millage rate to 15.72, the lowest nudge up without being considered a tax increase, would have covered all necessary costs and left a $33,000 gap between revenue and expenses.

There, I said it.

Before you raise your pitch forks, hear me out.

While I am not a resident of Effingham, have no children and I rent, not own, I have been working closely with the superintendent, his staff and the BoE as a reporter for more than a year and half. This is my second round fiscal deliberations, and I’m familiar with the main rules of school board funding. Along with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia, I earned a bachelor’s in international affairs, focusing on political economy.

What happened Tuesday evening was completely political and incredibly risky.

The BoE approved a budget that, for the third year in a row, does not change the millage rate through the grace of Superintendent Randy Shearouse’s and his staff’s foresight to save federal and state dollars allotted mid-fiscal year 2011, along with some creative equity transfers. The board made up for the $413,000 hit from maintaining 15.333 mills in the declining tax digest with a last minute slash of $100,000 for fuel and $50,000 for maintenance, along with cuts to supplies and other areas.

The board wanted to send you, the taxpayer, a message by effectively cutting your school taxes that they hear your cries for relief. But I believe they also wanted to send a message to the Effingham Board of Commissioners, who are firming up new district lines for the state, that their message to curb property taxes is clear as well.

In its budget, the county intends to take up funding the local library branches in exchange for BoE assistance in paying for school resource officers.

Although the budget balances, it leaves virtually no room for the unexpected, with a mere $6,000 gap between making budget and not making budget –– not much wiggle room for 11,000 students, 1,600 employees and a capricious market. And it’s a miracle that they did it without another year of morale-killing furlough days, and I commend board for such a feat.

But the reason that extra $100,000 was allocated to fuel in the first place was because of the volatility in gas prices last year, which doubled between September and May. Granted, the transportation department highballed fuel costs by using the highest bills available for projections. If gas prices creep up for any extended period, the school board can’t ask every parent to drop off and pick up their children at school for a week. So my guess, indeed a guess, is that the $100,000 will come from athletics and clubs: cut or limit out of county, non-region trips for all sports or academic teams.

While property owners have every right to be concerned about the millage rate, the air of outrage to a millage change was unfounded.

As legislated by the state of Georgia, the only instrument a school system has to raise its own operations funds is through property taxes. E-SPLOST dollars can only be used for building facilities and capital improvements.

The 15.72 would have given the school system a much needed $250,000 sigh of relief, without thinning out even more resources. What they took with 15.33 is a $413,000 self-inflicted wound.

Since 2009, the Effingham County school district has received $26 million in austerity cuts alone from the state. That’s not including dried up ARRA federal funds that cushioned budget woes through FY11 and cuts in its equalization funding, which is intended to bolster less wealthy systems with low local revenue.

By maintaining 15.33 mills, the state will likely cut even more from Effingham’s equalization funds, which, to keep systems from relying solely upon state funds, is meant to encourage and reward self-sufficiency through millage rates.

But when it comes to how they’ve dealt with these cuts, the BoE and Shearouse have been outstanding and deserve to have a school named after each of them. As far as staff, almost all positions lost have been through attrition, and most haven’t been replaced. Class sizes have increased, and employees have endured 11 furlough days from 2009-11. While there have been restrictions on field trips, no programs, such as art, music or technology, have been cut.

So, aside from a shorter calendar last year, students for the most part have not felt the pangs of revenue losses and spending cuts.

Scores for Effingham students on key national and state exams continue to rise, along with graduation rates.

Could they fire employees? Sure, but the majority of the BoE employees live right here in Effingham and spend parts of their salaries here, too.

If you want to whine about administrative costs, Shearouse will gladly repeat for you these figures: across approximately 180 school systems, Effingham is ranked 32nd from the bottom in administrative costs and spends $790 less per student than the average system in Georgia.

Chatham increased its millage rate by .5 and let 110 employees go — a tactic adopted by many Georgia systems, unfortunately. And yes, Chatham’s millage rate remains lower than Effingham’s at 14.631. But they have a lot more industry and property owners to support the school system, even though the district notoriously underperforms.

When I’ve asked people about what brought them to Effingham, one of the first things they say is the school system. Many of you reading this are included in that group.

Education is a part of what is making Effingham grow and what will make it continue to grow. As the Savannah ports draw more industry, the employers will be looking for a talented workforce and the workforce will look for good schools.

What happened with the BoE echoes the national climate of polarization and unwillingness to compromise when it’s needed most. Citizens expect and feel entitled to high caliber programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, military protection and public education, but are unwilling to cover the costs.

The stakes are too high for the Effingham BoE to put $6,000 between them and the edge of the cliff; their mission is much too important.

If programs dissolve, test scores drop or teachers get laid off, the school systems good reputation is jeopardized and the children will suffer. Who is really to blame?

The board members and the superintendent have shown time and again that they can provide “rigorous and relevant instruction” and a “foundation for post-secondary success,” as stated in its mission, and they can do it efficiently. But they can’t do it for free.

If the last few years are any indication, FY13 won’t be much better. While state revenues increase, those funds are going to replenish the rainy day fund, as Sen. Jack Hills said on a radio program yesterday morning.

That means next year, the BoE will likely have to raise the millage rate much more than .39 and/or put some of your children’s or grandchildren’s opportunities, your educator neighbors, the system that you love on the chopping block.

Unless, of course, things get better.

The Effingham County school system’s future now rests on hope, hope that something will get better.

Was it worth it?