Stephens BOE Approves Mill Rate Hike in Called Meeting

Stephens County school board members vote to raise the millage rate to help cover a multi-million dollar financial shortfall.

The Stephens County Board of Education approved an increase in the school system’s millage rate to the state maximum of 20 mills Friday by a 4-2 vote.

Board members Tony Crunkleton, Steve Tilley, Jeff Webb, and David Fricks voted for the millage rate increase.

Crunkleton said it is a tough decision, but one that has to be made.

“We realize we are accountable to the taxpayers,” said Crunkleton. “We realize we are accountable to the employees, but our priority has to be, no matter what we decide … has to be the students of the Stephens County School System and their education and whatever it takes to get them where they need to be.”

Board members Sandra Childs and Elizabeth Pinkerton voted against the millage rate increase.

Childs, who supported the 20 mill figure initially, said after receiving more information, she would have preferred to raise the millage rate to 19.4 instead of 20.

“When I voted for the 20, I was told if Stephens County was going to get any help from the state, we would have to show that Stephens County had done everything possible to get that help, but then I found out that it has to be done legislatively,” said Childs. “Well, the legislature is going to move at too slow a pace to help out when we need the help so it comes back to the fact that Stephens County is just going to have to help itself.”

Meanwhile, Board member Jim Ledford abstained from the vote.

He said he wants to have more answers on what happened before moving forward.

“I feel strongly about the people wanting to know what happened before we raise the millage,” said Ledford.

Stephens County Tax Commissioner Dene Hicks said that the millage rates need to be approved so she can complete the tax digest to turn in to Atlanta by the deadline of August 1 and not approving a millage rate Friday would have delayed that process because county commissioners must sign off on the school board’s millage rate along with the county government’s millage rate before that can happen.

Raising the millage rate to 20 mills will mean an increase in property taxes of about $64 for every $100,000 in property value.

Stephens County School Superintendent Bryan Dorsey said it will result in about $870,000 in additional revenue

The increase is part of a plan by the school system to re-coup a total of about $2.7 million. According to Dorsey, that is what is needed to both balance the Fiscal Year 2015 budget and pay back an estimated deficit in the school system’s fund balance of about $1.3 million.

That plan to make up the budget shortfall also includes nine calendar reduction days next year for school system staff.

Board member Jeff Webb said he wants to apologize to students, teachers, and taxpayers for the school system ending up in this situation.

“Mistakes have been made,” said Webb. “I know everyone wants accountability and I am as accountable as anybody.”

He said he would work to do a better job of watching over everything that takes place.

Prior to the Board of Education’s vote on the millage rate, it held its third and final public hearing on the tax hike.

Former Stephens County School Superintendent Ed Mills was the first to speak.

Last week, Mills presented a proposal stating that the school board could build a $33 million budget without a tax hike.

However, he said Friday that proposal was not correct because he had co-mingled federal funds with state and local money.

Instead, Mills presented a second proposal Friday that argued that the school system had access to $33 million in local and state funds to build its general fund budget without a property tax hike.

Mills claimed there is extra state revenue available to the school system.

“You have $927,000 that is coming in to eliminate as many furlough days that you can,” said Mills. “You have $300,000 coming in because you are a charter school system.”

However, Dorsey said the $927,000 in state funds Mills cites to eliminate furloughs is already figured into what the school system is budgeting to receive from the state.

“It is in the QBE allotment, so we are getting $927,000 more than under last year’s formula, (but) there is not a separate check coming,” said Dorsey. “It is already in this calculation.”

As for the $300,000 in funding for being a charter system, Dorsey said that money has not been officially approved and if the school system does get it, the school governance teams get to determine where that money goes, according to the charter system contract with the state.

Also, Mills called on the school system to use tax anticipation notes to cover costs. Dorsey said the school system is already doing that and using tax revenue to pay them back.

Local resident John Austin also spoke, saying people in the county are hurting and calling on the school board to run the school system like a business.