Peach BOE OKs tax increase

FORT VALLEY — The Peach County school board passed a proposed $61.5 million budget Tuesday night that calls for more taxes and fewer personnel.

Superintendent Susan Clark said the school system is dealing with state austerity funding cuts that so far have totaled more than $6.5 million over the past eight years. School leaders also have faced higher transportation costs, no state funding for technology upgrades, new construction outlays and the “adverse effect of community strife in the district.”

The proposed school spending plan would mean a millage rate increase of 1.538 mills, bringing the total to 17 mills.

A mill is $1 of tax owed for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value. In Georgia, property is assessed at 40 percent of its value, and other exemptions may be allowed. On a $100,000 home, the proposed millage rate increase would amount to about $62 more in taxes for the homeowner.

Clark said the system’s share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stabilization funds, about $1.28 million, did not offset the proposed austerity cut of $1.72 million, leaving the system more than $442,000 short.

On top of that is the system’s Quality Basic Education Act-mandated local 5-mill share — instructional costs the state expects local systems to pay with locally raised funds, which will amount to more than $2.7 million.

“The local 5-mill share is another way for the state to take back money after giving it to us,” Clark said. “And for all intents and purposes, the stabilization money is no help to us.”

Among the provisions for dealing with an anticipated budget shortfall of about $2 million are four-day furloughs for all system employees except for bus drivers and bus monitors. Clark reported earlier that the furloughs would save the system about $534,000.

Other savings included eliminating 10 positions in the central office, as well as one assistant principal, eight teaching positions, three graduation coach positions, one coach position, three nursing positions, 13 paraprofessional positions and seven school clerical positions.

One item that should be eliminated is an attitude, Clark said.

She said the school board’s long history of split votes “signals there is a serious relationship problem in the community that is reflected by the school board.”

The divisiveness between the north and south ends of the county has had an adverse effect on students, and it has resulted in a real cost to the school system, she said.

She reeled off numbers to illustrate her point:

Ÿ More than $259,000 spent in legal fees from 2004-08, much of it defending against “frivolous lawsuits”;

Ÿ More than $182,000 spent on curriculum and instruction materials from 2005-08, “some of it useless”;

Ÿ More than $470,000 spent on architecture studies, surveys and soil sample tests on properties the school system did not own or use; and

Ÿ More than $184,000 spent on personnel, most of it for buying out former Superintendent Tommy Daniel’s contract in November 2007 after the board terminated his contract.

“The unpleasant fact is we spent $1,096,158 between 2004-08, and most of it was unnecessary,” Clark said. “What can we do?”

Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Clark said residents must look beyond personal differences and pull together for the good of the students in Peach County. “Folks, as adults, we cannot continue to fight each other,” she said.

Shifting $1.8 million in state/local expenses to federal stimulus funds will help balance revenue, she said. Projected expenditures in the new budget total $31.6 million, leaving a fund balance of $1.5 million, or the minimum recommended level of 5 percent.

“You can approve this budget or wind up giving the state control of our finances,” she said.

“I’ve been frustrated by this process. The budget seems like a moving target,” board Chairman Jody Usry said.

“We don’t have good data. We’re flying blind on the state level of funding and the tax digest.”

After board member Kay Whitley’s motion to approve was seconded by Vice Chairman Jamie Johnson, the vote was 4-0 to adopt the budget.

The school system is working on a schedule for three public hearings concerning the millage rate increase. The new budget is scheduled to take effect July 1.

To contact writer Jake Jacobs, call 923-6199, extension 305.