Bibb school officials: No option to seeking tax hike

There’s a hiring freeze on 16 vacant positions in the central office, and Bibb County school officials are considering buying “e-books,” the digital equivalent of printed books, to help cut costs.

This school year, Bibb teachers are required to take seven furlough days. Before that, the system shut down a program to help at-risk middle school students go to college.

Still, come Tuesday, the Bibb County school board is poised to approve a tax increase.

“The system has made proactive cuts to live within its means,” said acting Superintendent Sylvia McGee. “We are at a point we clearly have to ask” for more revenue.

The state, which funds the largest portion of public school budgets, has scaled back, requiring more in local taxes. Since the school system adopted its operating budget in June, the state has slashed about $9 million in Bibb County’s anticipated funding, requiring the system to cut an equal amount.

The school system’s spending plan calls for generating almost $77 million in local taxes to make ends meet.

After last year’s countywide property revaluations, which raised values by 13.5 percent, the school system had the option of fully rolling back its millage rate from 19.79 mills to 16.945 mills to offset a windfall in tax collections. A full rollback would generate just $72.7 million for the school system, officials said, short about $4.1 million needed to balance the budget.

Last month, the school board voted to tentatively adopt a 17.945 millage rate, a 1 mill increase over the full rollback rate.

The alternatives — cutting jobs, which account for about 90 percent of system expenses, or using money from the school system’s reserve — aren’t viable options, officials said.

“I know times are hard,” school board President Gary Bechtel said.

With the board’s expenses and more state cuts likely for fiscal year 2011, which starts in July, “We won’t be able to go back to the taxpayers” at that time for more revenue, he said. “We’ll have to drill down on the expense side. I hope everyone understands that.”

Tuesday is the school board’s final public hearing, with a called meeting afterward to set the millage rate. For now, it doesn’t appear that board members will change their minds.

“The proposed mill levy is necessary if the district is to continue to be fiscally sound in the face of the current uncertain fiscal environment,” said Ron Collier, the system’s chief financial officer.

“This increase is necessitated by state-mandated reductions in state educational funding, as well as a drastic decline in state funding during the past eight years that has placed a significant tax burden on the local communities.”

State funding way down

During the past eight years, the formula that the state uses to calculate how much Bibb County receives to teach its students has resulted in about $46 million in cuts to Bibb’s school funding, Collier said.

Also, the formula the state uses to calculate how much money Bibb earns to buy items such as textbooks and for school maintenance has not changed since 2000, Collier said, even though costs have risen, requiring the system to use its general fund.

“That was money due to this school district earned by the state’s own formula that we did not receive,” he said.

As far as drawing money from the school system’s reserves to make up the difference in lieu of a tax increase, Collier said, the reserve is already dangerously low.

A healthy reserve for the school system is $21.5 million to $23 million, he said.

Since June, the school system used $6 million of its $12 million reserve to deal with funding shortfalls.

The system has made other cuts to build the reserve back up to about $10 million.

“At some point, you have to steer that tide,” Collier said. “The idea was, we did not want to” use any more money from reserves.

The system, which spends about $13.5 million to make payroll each month, may have to take out a tax anticipation note, a loan, later this year if tax collections don’t come in as anticipated, he said.

So far, the school system has collected about $55 million in local tax proceeds, with at least $13 million to be billed and about $2.5 million in auto tag receipts still to be collected, he said.

“About $70.5 million, that’s where we’re at. From there, how do we get to $77 million?” Collier said.

The Bibb County school system isn’t the only one that’s struggling.

According to Georgia Department of Education, the number of school systems operating at a deficit is increasing.

There were nine school systems on a state budget reduction plan in 2009, up from seven in 2008.

The state has also granted more than 100 “hardship waivers” this school year from school systems asking for relief because of budget constraints.

That includes systems asking to be excluded from having smaller class sizes, which would require hiring more teachers, and for systems to spend 65 percent of their general fund in the classroom.

Bibb asked for waivers in both areas.

About 15 county residents asked the board in the two public hearings last week not to raise taxes.

“Everybody is hurting,” resident Jessie Coley said. “Before you do this, think about the citizens of Bibb County.”

McGee said in response that the increase is necessary.

“We’ve done two hearings and provided more than a ‘we just need money’” case, McGee said.

“We provided a sound explanation.”

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.