The Tift County Board of Education has voted to increase their millage rate by 3 mills, which will total 17.964, for the 2014-2015 school year. In addition, there will be four reduced staff days for teachers, instead of last year's six. At their May board meeting, the board unanimously approved the FY 2014-2015 tentative budget. They will approve the final budget during tonight's meeting at 6.
Last year, Finance Director Klinton Guess warned that if the state continues to underfund the school system, they could possibly be looking at raising the millage rate in 2015. Even in 2012, Superintendent Patrick Atwater warned that the local school system would be facing financial challenges in the upcoming years.
The board has been able to maintain a millage rate of 14.964 since 2005. The following is a breakdown of the current rate: 5 - Local Fair Share to Atlanta, 2.5 - Social Security (employer side), 2 - salary supplements, 2 - non-certified health insurance (employer side), 2 - non-certified salary costs and 1.464 - operations/instructional supplies.
When asked how they were able to maintain the rate at 14.964 mills for several years without a tax hike, Atwater said, "There were a plethora of factors that went into it." He said when they were first hit with austerity cuts in 2003 by the state, the value of property in Tift County was growing enough to offset the cuts. Then, there began a slow but steady move toward reducing their expenditures.
"There has been a very methodical reduction in staff over the past six to eight to 10 years, including a multitude of central office staff eliminations," Atwater noted.
He said for many years, he served as both superintendent and finance director and now he serves as superintendent and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Although they have had a reduction in staff, he said they haven't had to lay anyone off.
"All of it's been handled through attrition through the years and job combinations," Atwater said. He added they have had a reduction in assistant principals and class sizes are larger. He said there are a litany of things that they've done.
"There are a lot of things that were unpopular," he said.
The parking fees at the high school were raised last year. Atwater said this raised enough to save the salary of a support staff member. Also, he said the decision to reduce or eliminate the funds to the public library, which was a very difficult decision, saved another position. The Tifton Gazette reported last year that nearly $220,000 was cut from the local school system's media centers through attrition, staffing and supplies. Funding to the regional and local libraries had to be cut by approximately $22,000.
"Our biggest savings have been in personnel," Atwater said. "It's been a sacrifice for personnel across the board from the superintendent's office all the way down to our grounds crews and custodial staff. There has been sacrificial action taken by all staff members. Staff has been very supportive as they can be. Most of us are just glad to have jobs."
Guess said one of the largest reasons why the millage rate has stayed the same is because of the reduced staff days over the years.
Atwater said the finance committee finally came to the decision to recommend the 3 mill increase and four reduced staff days after a lot of discussion.
"A lot of work went into preparing our budget for FY 2015 from our financial staff," he said, noting a lot of input came from their principals as well before they made their budget presentation.
In addition, Atwater said they had to take into consideration their expenditures. They used the best numbers they had for projected revenues. They also had to take into consideration that this year the state waived an approximately $500,000 increase for non-certified staff insurance.
Atwater said Guess showed the board a multitude of formulas to look over and plug in numbers to see what would occur with a mill increase. He said they planned not just one year in advance for FY 2015, but they also looked at what impact the decision made by the board this year would have on their budgets for FY 2016 and FY 2017.
"When you take into consideration your 2015 budget, 2016 budget and 2017 budget and then move forward all of the teachers' salary scales, because the salary scales have not been frozen, more than 80 percent of staff are still receiving salary step increases," Atwater said. He said all of this is taken into consideration, including the increased cost for insurance for 2016 and 2017. They then project their revenue based on previous years income and come about with what they need to operate for 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Atwater said last year, the board chose to use one more piece of the fund balance and reduce their own board policy from an 8 percent base to a 5 percent base. He said the board took every step that they could to prevent a millage increase, but they can no longer encumber the continued cuts nor do they want their employees to shoulder the burden of the continued cuts, now for the past many years.
Therefore, the board looked at a 3 mill increase and how much it would bring into the system on averages based upon the current information and what it would do. Knowing that the number of dollars coming from the state will be less than what it should be, said Atwater, the finance committee went back and forth with several formulas. They also looked at how many mills would it take to balance the budget with no staff reduction days.
"In the end, the finance committee came up with a recommendation to balance it less on the backs of the employees and share that burden with the entire community who benefit from a quality public education," Atwater said.
He said the 3 mill increase gives the board some flexibility in the future if the state continues to underfund education. He said they still have some wiggle room there to increase even more up to 20 mills (which is the max for most systems).
Atwater said if the state doesn't increase their portion of funding or at least fund it at the level they're supposed to, this will continue to be a problem. He said he hopes the state will get back to funding Quality Basic Education (QBE), but the reality is that "the cuts that we've seen will become the new norm."
"I don't think the outlook is good in the current climate for all of the cuts to ever be restored. I would certainly hope so," he said.
Since 2003, the total austerity cuts by the state will come to $38 million for FY 2014-15. Atwater said this year, their cuts from the state is $3.6 million and their deficit is $3.8 million.
"If the formula was funded at the level that it's supposed to be funded at and at the level of expectation they hold us accountable for, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Atwater reiterated to The Gazette. "Tift County would still be sitting at a 14.964 millage rate." He added they wouldn't have had to make the decisions for a 3 mill increase and four reduced staff days.
"Our budget deficit this year is very close to that of the shortfall from revenue from the state," he said.
Atwater noted the school system does not have a Local Option Sales Tax, which the city and county does. He said prior to making a recommendation to the board to raise taxes, they adamantly supported and tried to increase other avenues for them to obtain revenue to finance their system.
"The only major local source of revenue that a local board of education has is ad valorem taxes," he said. "We want it and support it." He said there were many school systems supporting it, but they were unsuccessful across the state to have it added.
Other factors that affect Tift County Schools include the system pays into Social Security, costing approximately $2.5 million each year (this is a fixed expense that they can no longer opt out of) and earns approximately $970,000 per mill of tax levied.
Atwater said two of the school systems that they compete with, Valdosta and Lowndes County, earn $1.4 million plus per mill. They earn more than $400,000 per mill more than Tift County.
He noted Tift County was selected to present at the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders Conference in July as one of the state's Super Six that's doing more with less. They were chosen out of 180 districts. The other five districts chosen were Carroll, Calhoun, Clarke, Coffee and Madison counties.
"Due to the sacrifices and commitment from our staff for our students, Super Six is quite an honor," Atwater said.
Also, with the board's approval of the proposed 2014-15 school calendar at May's board meeting, they were able to add back three more instructional days. The calendar, which is available on the Tift County Schools website, includes 179 instructional days for students and 186 days for staff. For the last two years, Tift County students have attended school for 176 days. Atwater said their plan is to go back to 180 instructional days. He noted some systems in the state went to school as little as 144 days last year. There were only a handful of systems that went to school for 180 days.
Atwater said they have gone door to door, held public forums and awareness sessions and did presentations at all local schools to make the public more aware of the school system's financial challenges. Every employee had an opportunity to hear about their funding formula and challenges during the presentations done by Guess. He said they had very open dialogue and their staff members were receptive.
Last year, they encouraged citizens to talk to their representatives and senators to take back to the General Assembly that they want Georgia students to compete globally. Atwater said they continue to ask citizens to do this.
Guess had said, "If we do our job and citizens start getting vocal, they're going to have to do something."
To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.