Don’t raise taxes to fix the school system’s mistakes.
That was the message from multiple people who spoke Thursday at the first of three public hearings on a proposed Stephens County Board of Education millage rate increase.
The Board of Education is proposing to raise the millage rate by 1.6 mills, from 18.4 mills to the state maximum of 20 mills, in an effort to make up a multi-million dollar shortfall.
According to Stephens County School Superintendent Bryan Dorsey last month, the school system has to find about $2.7 million 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.
Local resident Tommy Purcell said the public should not be punished for the school system’s mismanagement.
“You all need to do what you need to do to get in line,” said Purcell. “That is a businesslike way to approach this thing. Businesses would have to do that.”
Another county resident, David Vaughn, said the school system needs to look more at what it can do without.
“I think everybody here has had to cut back,” said Vaughn. “There is a lot of things I would like to have … we can not afford it so we just do not do it.”
Dorsey said the school system was able to find $1.4 million in savings through staff attrition and retirements that required no terminations and other cost saving measures.
According to Dorsey, capping out the millage rate at 20 mills would bring the school system $870,000 in additional revenue. It would mean about $64 in additional taxes for every $100,000 in property value.
Even at the 20 mill figure, Dorsey said all staff would face a loss of nine work days to make up the rest of the shortfall.
He said the school system does not face a lot of great choices.
“To reduce the work loss days or the millage rate below 20 mills would require a reduction in force with terminations, not just attrition that we have already absorbed, and we would have to look into closing programs,” said Dorsey.
Dorsey said the school system looked at ideas like a four-day work week and found that while there were savings in some areas, there would also be losses in areas like reimbursements in the food service program that would offset some of those savings.
Some speakers also expressed concerns about the impact of a tax hike on economic development.
Former school system employee and Board of Education candidate Laura Biggers said the impact of a tax hike would be devastating for economic development.
“Why would anyone want to move here or establish a business here when neighboring counties have much lower school taxes?” asked Biggers.
People also demanded answers from the Board of Education about how it ended up at this point, asking how could they not know about the budget problems and what exactly has happened.
Stephens County Commissioner Dennis Bell said somebody needs to provide those answers.
“I would ask you all to please considering calling the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in on this thing,” said Bell. “Get the answers we need. If somebody needs to go to jail, so be it. If they do not, at least it will be cleared up.”
Dorsey said the school system is still waiting on the Fiscal Year 2013 audit from the state.
He said he knows it is hard, but he asks for patience until that audit is finished.
“Based on the information I have received informally from the auditors, I do think that clears up some of this information,” said Dorsey. “It puts it in writing and it puts it from a third party. We are eager to get it as everyone else is because we want some clarity.”
Dorsey said the school system expects to receive that audit around the end of the month.
There are two more public hearings scheduled on the proposed Board of Education millage rate increase.
Those are scheduled for Tuesday at 5 p.m. and next Friday, July 18, at 8 a.m., both at the Stephens County School System Administrative Office on Mize Road.
A final vote on the millage rate is expected after the July 18 public hearing.
Meanwhile, multiple school board members have said that they want to look at lowering the millage rate back down once the school system is beyond the current shortfall situation.