The Tift County Board of Education held their first two public hearings Thursday on the millage rate increase.
The board tentatively adopted a millage rate which will require an increase in property taxes by 3 mills, bringing the millage rate to 17.964 mills. This increase is deemed necessary by the board to meet increased demands on public education and the continued rise in costs.
Local citizen Tom Rankin spoke at the public hearing that was held at noon Thursday. At the second public hearing, which was held at 6 p.m., several faculty, staff and citizens gathered in the board room. Chairwoman Kim Rutland reminded citizens that another hearing will be held at noon July 17.
"Our goal is to be transparent on all levels," she said. "Everything is on the table."
"It is our mission that we provide the children of Tift County with the highest level of service possible. In order to maintain this mission, the Tift County Board of Education has tentatively adopted a millage rate which will require an increase in property taxes by 3 mills," she explained. "While we are very grateful for the $1.5 million that the governor and legislators restored to educational funding, there is still a huge gap. It is important that we make clear the monumental increases in the cost involved to operate a school system of almost 8,000 children."
Rutland mentioned the 2012 state's withdrawal of financial support for non-certified health insurance. She explained that this $2 million expenditure is now 100 percent locally funded and equivalent to 2 mills of the tax.
Local citizen Alice Dorminy took the podium, saying she was against raising the millage rate. She asked the board several questions about items related to the budget. Those questions included how much money is being spent to implement Common Core (which she's against), what happened to SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) money, the farm purchase, extra supplements and the superintendent's salary.
Local citizen Jonathan Jones was the only other person who spoke. Handing board members a spreadsheet, he asked about cash flow management and meeting the budget. When commenting on the spreadsheet comparing Tift County with Lee, Lowndes and Colquitt counties, he said, "On the revenue side, we're all comparable. But, on a per student FTE (full-time equivalent), Colquitt must be doing something great, because they're almost getting $800 per student better on the FTE money from the state."
"Whatever they're doing, they should to be applauded. We're doing great from the federal government. I don't know if we can blend that and pick up a few hundred dollars per student," he added. "On the expense side, there's a couple of areas of concern."
Jones also asked about the QBE (Quality Basic Education) formula.
"I understand from other statewide meetings that I've attended that the governor is committed to reforming that next year or at least reviewing it. So, that's very positive," he said. He also commented on the challenges of the board and state legislators, advising them to have enough dialogue and a relationship where they can enter a room and come out with the same common goal.
Superintendent Patrick Atwater began by first responding to Dorminy's questions and concerns. He said Common Core is not a federal mandate.
"All of our monies that we spend for professional development are going to implement the Georgia Common Core Performance Standards," Atwater said. "That is what has been adopted by the state of Georgia. It's something that the Tift County Board of Education has no discretion over and it's something that our staff feel very strongly about."
He added their staff are also very concerned about the period of changes in curriculum when there are leadership changes in the state.
"Every time we change curriculum, it costs you as a taxpayer unbelievable amounts of money to change," Rutland noted.
"And that's not us changing it," added board member Rita Griffin.
Atwater said they are rock solid behind Common Core.
"Common Core does has it flaws, specifically in math. We recognize that and are working with the state to address the issues with Common Core," he said.
When discussing SPLOST, he commented that it is not out. He said it's strong and continues to be the reason they have maintained a good forward push with their facilities.
"Our SPLOST referendum is one of the more aggressive referendums in the state," Atwater said. "It is well financed. We now currently purchase virtually all of our textbooks."
In reference to the farm, Atwater said Medford Farm was purchased as a school site. He said the board has a current five-year plan that includes a K-5, 6-8, 9-12 grade configuration.
"The taxes for the farm were $15,000 to $17,000 that we were earning in revenue from the tax department when it was owned by a private individual," he said. "When we purchased it, the land rents for $32,000 per year. The home that came with it rents for close to $800 a month. So, we're earning $42,000 plus or minus per year in revenue as supposed to the $15,000 to $17,000 that we were earning prior to our purchase. Obviously, that is not why we bought it. It is something that has been good to us. It has not cost us money; it has not lost us money. It has met the requirements in our SPLOST and provided future boards multiple opportunities for multiple schools and multiple growth."
"The money was in the bank. The money was SPLOST dollars," Rutland added, noting it was not local dollars. "It was paid for with cash. There was no debt that was incurred from any of that."
Board member Marian Richbourg later noted they could always roll the millage rate back if there are changes with finances. When commenting about the tangible and intangible things that are now put on schools, she said, "It takes the entire community to educate our children."
"It's very important to us to keep a good relationship with our legislators," Rutland said, advising citizens to also voice their concerns.
She said she will also support their faculty and staff, but "at the end of the day, we were all elected to do what's best for the children of Tift County."
To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.