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Residents blast tax increase plan

Gainesville school officials say they can’t explain red ink

POSTED: June 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Chief Financial Officer Janet Allison goes over the school system budget during a Gainesville schools budget hearing Wednesday at New Holland Core Knowledge Academy.

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Gainesville school officials said Wednesday that they don’t know how the system piled up a mountain of debt, claiming a former financial chief told them the district had a surplus before she left.

School officials said they could end the year with a deficit of $6.5 million to $7 million by June 30, the end of the fiscal year, and they are pushing a 15 percent increase in the property tax rate to get back in the black.

"The entire board is probably as upset as (the public is) over this," said board member David Syfan. "We are not a very happy board at this point."

Residents attending a hearing Wednesday blasted school officials, with many calling for an independent audit as soon as possible

"You’ve got to earn our trust back," resident Jane Carpenter said during a public hearing at New Holland Core Knowledge Academy. "We feel like we’ve been violated."

More criticism could be on the way tonight, as the board holds its second hearing on the district’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2008-09, which begins July 1.

The hearing is set for 6 p.m. at Gainesville High School.

Board members said they believed they had a $900,000 surplus at this time last year, based on data provided by finance officer Angela Adams, who resigned in August to take a post in Buford city schools.

Adams "said we had the money in the budget, so we based projections on those particular numbers she gave us," said board member Willie Mitchell. "In the past, when you get a budget, it always had been right."

Adams has declined to comment about the situation.

To pull itself out of the financial abyss, school officials are proposing raising the maintenance and operations tax rate to 8 mills — the most allowed by law — from 6.96 mills. The district also levies .34 mills for past bond debts, but that amount won’t change.

One mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in property value. A $150,000 home would cost the owner an additional $207 in property taxes.

The tax increase could raise $3.5 million next year. To balance next year’s projected $52.6 million budget, the district also is looking at some $4.5 million in cuts, including not filling some vacant positions.

Next year’s budget could produce a year-end surplus of nearly $3.4 million, particularly if it receives the same midyear adjustment it received this year from the state, or $1.6 million.

The surplus, however, would go to relieve the deficit, with finance chief Janet Allison saying she believes the district would need two years to get back into the black.

Some audience members took special aim at Superintendent Steven Ballowe for the financial mess.

"This particular person, who doesn’t even live in the city, ... takes a big, fat check from the city, but he wants us to (raise) our taxes so we can pay for the mistakes made in the last few years," Lenny Baker said.

"President Truman used to say the buck stops (here)," she added. Then, pointing to Ballowe, she added, "He is the superintendent. He’s the one drawing the big salary. He should be held accountable."

"I agree, along with the board being held accountable," Mitchell said. "We are the ones who approved the budget based on the information we had."

Ballowe sat quietly during the meeting.

One resident, James Brooks, said he believed a "witch hunt" was taking place at the meeting.

"Let’s get down and correct (the problems) and get out of the personalities," he said.

Residents also asked about the status of audits. School board members said a state audit of expenses for fiscal 2006-07, which ended last June 30, is under way now. State audits usually occur one year behind the current fiscal year.

"If you want to find out where we are, you need to step up and have an independent audit," said resident George Jones, whose comment received loud applause from the nearly 30 people attending the hearing.

Most companies or organizations "have some explaining to do" when they are 5 percent over budget, he added.

"But when you’re over 13.5 percent over budget, that’s unheard of," Jones said.

"It’s got to fall on the administration. ... The administration and the board have the fiduciary responsibility to protect everyone in this room and ... they have violated our trust."

Board members agreed with the residents’ call for the audit.

"We need to eliminate and cut things that don’t hurt children until we get an independent audit," board member Kelvin Simmons said.

The school system’s budget must be approved at two consecutive meetings. The first reading is set for 5 p.m. June 2, and the final adoption is set for 7 p.m. June 16. Both meetings will take place in the system’s central office at 508 Oak St.

The system must submit a final budget to the state by June 30, said Sammy Smith, the board’s May chairman.



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