While Hall County Schools has proposed a property tax increase to fund its next budget, the final percentage could depend on appeals and exemptions.
The district has spent about 3 percent less than the $259 million budgeted for the current fiscal year, which ends when July begins.
Lower energy costs and a slightly lower student enrollment this past academic year are largely responsible, according to officials.
But Superintendent Will Schofield said at a board of education meeting on Monday, June 10, that he expects enrollment numbers, particularly for kindergarten, to tick back up next year as new residential growth emerges in South Hall.
“It’ll be interesting to see just who shows up on our doorstep,” Schofield said.
The school district’s proposed budget includes about $2 million to hire more teachers to manage student enrollment growth and special education needs.
The savings this year could boost the district’s reserves, which stand at about $34 million, as it prepares a $270 million general fund budget for the 2020 fiscal year and 2019-20 academic year.
Schofield previously told The Times that additional revenues and expenses in the county budget were largely tied to teacher pay raises, about $3,000 per certified educator, which the state is funding.
Schofield said he also expects more than $1 million in state funding for ongoing school safety enhancements.
The Hall County Board of Education will pursue a property tax increase to fund this budget, and will host two more public hearings on June 24 before setting the millage rate.
The proposed budget actually includes a reduction in the property tax rate, but not enough to avoid what is considered a tax increase.
Board members have proposed setting the rate at 17.8 mills, down from the current rate of 18.2, but still 4.41% higher than the full rollback rate of 17.049.
The full rollback rate is the mechanism under state law that allows systems to avoid a hike by accounting for increases in revenue from property tax reassessments.
Schofield said there may be an opportunity to “chisel down” the proposed tax rate, but that will depend on how property tax collections are impacted by appeals.
Hall County’s chief tax appraiser Steve Watson told The Times on Tuesday, June 11, that 3,033 appeals had been filed to date, with 85-88% related to residential properties.
Watson said he and his team had updated valuations on more properties this year, about 72 percent in all among both residential and commercial parcels, compared with about 60 percent in 2018.
Additionally, the school district’s budget could change based on the growing number of tax exemptions, Schofield said.
In 2005, the county had about $450 million worth of property that was exempt from school taxes, or about 10 percent of the total tax digest.
Today, that figure has risen to about $1.3 billion, or almost 21 percent of the tax digest.
There are many exemptions available, such as for disabled veterans, surviving spouses of firefighters, for agriculture and conservation, and for public utilities.
Senior citizens, however, account for 61 percent of all exemptions in Hall. Seniors can receive a full exemption beginning at age 70.
Nath Morris, chair of the board of education, said he thinks the board may be able to shave a few additional tenths off the currently proposed tax rate, but he doesn’t believe they will approve a full rollback based on current budget projections.
About 87% of the proposed budget is directed toward salaries and benefits for more than 3,500 school employees, from teachers to bus drivers to administrative staff.
Mandated benefits alone, such as the teacher retirement system, and payroll taxes to support Social Security and Medicare, totals about $74 million.
Still, Hall County spends about $8,500 per pupil, according to Georgia Department of Education data, compared with the state average of about $9,400.
Schofield said that’s a win for taxpayers without cutting corners on education.
For example, he said, there are 37 programs of choice to personalize student learning, ranging from STEM-focused courses to the arts and languages.
And the school district is working to expand work-based study and dual-enrollment courses for students to prepare them for the labor force or allow them to earn college credits while still in high school.
Hall County Schools 2020 fiscal year budget
What: Public hearings on proposed budget and property tax increase
When: 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. June 24
Where: Hall County School District central office, 711 Green St., Gainesville