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Gainesville schools propose 14.4 percent tax hike
State Rep. Rogers to school board: Fix it or dissolve it
Renee Gerrell holds a copy of Gainesville schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe’s contract while speaking to the Gainesville school board during the citizens comment portion of Monday’s meeting. Many residents are incensed at Ballowe about a deficit that could total between $5.5 million and $6.6 million, not to mention a proposed property tax increase of 14.4 percent. - photo by Tom Reed


Gainesville residents Bill Morrison and James Brooks address the school board Monday night.

Faced with a multimillion-dollar deficit and with no detailed budget in front of them, Gainesville school board members nonetheless voted 4-1 Monday night to approve a $53.24 million tentative spending plan for the next fiscal year.

The proposed budget, which must get final approval by June 30, includes what school system Superintendent Steven Ballowe termed an "exploratory" total property tax rate of 7.96 mills, .38 mills less than earlier proposed.

That’s a 14.4 percent tax increase from the current rate of 6.96 mills.

More than 200 people filled the cafeteria at Gainesville High School for the meeting.

The threat of higher taxes and the runaway deficit brought comments from many in attendance, including state Rep. Carl Rogers, who called it "a sad day in Gainesville."

Rogers, R-Gainesville, told board members that if they could not take corrective action, he would introduce legislation to dissolve the school system.

"There has to be change, and it has to be at the top," Rogers told the board members, referring to Ballowe.

The board delayed action on Ballowe’s annual review, pending individual written evaluations that will be submitted to Willie Mitchell, the board’s June chairman, next week.

The City Board of Education’s vote Monday marked its first steps toward generating a 2008-09 budget that school officials project will start chipping away at an estimated $6.6 million deficit.

Mitchell, along with board members Kelvin Simmons, David Syfan and Maria Calkins, voted for the budget, which was based on a one-page overview of general-fund expenses and several revenue scenarios.

Sammy Smith voted against it, saying after the meeting, "There were many questions that were unanswered at this juncture, and I understand (the budget approval) is a process."

The new fiscal year begins July 1, and the district must submit a budget, along with a deficit-reduction plan, to the state Department of Education by June 30.

The board plans to approve a final budget on that same day. Between now and then, school officials said they hope to reduce the budget further through suggestions made by board members and administrators.

"We can further reduce (the budget) before and after June 30," said Chief Financial Officer Janet Allison.

Allison did offer one bit of good fiscal news: The year-end deficit may, after final calculations, drop to between $5.5 million and $6 million.

Still, taxpayers face a big jump in the tax rate, which is currently at 6.96 mills. Under Ballowe’s "exploratory" millage, the owner of a $183,800 home, the median home price in Gainesville, would pay $183 in additional school tax.

Rogers said that he would introduce local legislation tightening administrative controls on the system at the next session of the General Assembly.

He further predicted that the state Board of Education would be critical of the system’s finances, which have exceeded the budget in the two previous fiscal years.

Mitchell asked for residents to be patient as the school board works through the budgetary situation.

"If you can’t work with us, then step aside," he said.

Allison said the state requires the district, in a deficit budget, to increase the tax by at least .40 mills. She presented to board members revenue scenarios involving tax rates ranging from 7.36 mills to 8.34.

All the rates include a fixed .34 mills for bond debts, with the remainder for maintenance and operations.

At the 8.34 rate and factoring in other revenue sources, Allison projects that the district would have a total of $54.3 million in revenue. That figure also takes into account 95 percent of taxpayers paying their taxes.

If the district received the same midyear funding boost it received this year from the state, or $1.56 million, the total revenue could climb to $55.9 million.

Between those two scenarios involving the state funding, the district could end up with between $1.1 million and $2.65 million to apply toward the deficit.

Rogers, speaking in an interview after the meeting, said he believed that with a souring economy that the 95 percent rate is too high and the midyear adjustment "could be a lot less."

Under the 7.96 mills scenario, factoring in the same midyear funding and other revenues, the district could end next fiscal year with a $5.1 million deficit.

Allison said that if the board doesn’t approve a budget by June 30, the school system would have to operate on a "month-to-month spending resolution." She didn’t elaborate.

Staff writer Harris Blackwood contributed to this report.