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Rep. Rogers wants Hall County, Gainesville city schools to merge
Gainesville school board raises property taxes 12 percent
Gainesville High School students Kelsey Maine, 17, left, and Kathryn Johnston, 16, middle, talk about taking Cole Doherty's photo during a photography class Thursday. State Rep. Carl Rogers spoke to the city school board Thursday, suggesting that the city school system merge with the Hall County school system. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Due to a bleak economic forecast and troubling budgetary issues on the local level, Rep. Carl Rogers proposed the Gainesville school system consider a merger with the Hall County school system.

Rogers voiced his proposal at the Gainesville City Council meeting Thursday morning and echoed his suggestion later at a public hearing of the Gainesville school board. The hearing was called to allow residents to express their opinions on the 12 percent property tax increase.

In a 4-1 vote with board member Sammy Smith dissenting, the Gainesville school board adopted a 7.81 millage rate Thursday evening, raised from a 6.96 millage rate.

One mill equals $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. The 7.81 millage rate will require the owner of a $183,000 home, the median home price in Gainesville, to pay $156.23 in additional property tax this fall.

Smith has said he does not support the millage rate increase because he has concerns with the 95 percent collection rate the board used to determine the 7.81 millage rate. He said he worries less than 95 percent of taxpayers can’t or won’t fork over the tax increase.

Before the board adopted the tax increase, Rogers asked board members to consider merging the city school system with the Hall County school system in upcoming years.

"The concern from the community is can we afford two systems?" Rogers said.

"It’s a last resort," he said of the proposed merger. "But we’re in difficult times, and it’s difficult to raise property taxes right now."

David Syfan, Gainesville school board chairman, said the property tax increase will raise an additional $1.75 million to be applied to the school system’s deficit. He said the tax increase will help the system reduce its present deficit estimated at $5.6 million to about $3.85 million by June 30, 2009. The board hopes to eliminate the deficit by 2011.

The representative said he has three grandchildren in the city school system and understands the role of the system in the community. But Rogers, who represents part of Hall County, said he anticipates a flurry of phone calls from upset residents following the mailing of city tax bills on Oct. 10.

With $600,000 of state cuts not yet slashed from the city school system’s final budget for this fiscal year, Rogers said he’s concerned about the school system’s financial status in light of the additional 2 percent state education cuts that may be on the way.

"Until we can come out of this softness we’re in, I see the millage rate going higher and higher," he said. "... I’m concerned about where we’ll be in 12 months."

Gerald Gailey, a Gainesville taxpayer, spoke against the property tax increase at the public hearing Thursday.

"We’ve been stiffed once, I don’t want to get stiffed again," Gailey said. "If they’re going to ring this tax out of us, what are they going to do for us?"

Gainesville school system interim Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the system’s finance director Janet Allison has taken painstaking steps to correct all the flawed accounting records to get the board back on the right financial track. Also, Syfan said Allison untied all the system’s accounts from one another so the balance of accounts is more easily determined.

Dyer also said the board is working with auditors from the state Department of Education to submit monthly payment plans to the state department to prevent a similar deficit situation from happening again.

Derrick Coggin is a parent of a Gainesville High School student and said he does not want the city system to merge with the county system. He said it’s worth the roughly $156 more per year he will pay in property taxes if it keeps the system afloat. Coggin also owns X-Tra Realty, a local real estate company.

"As a parent of a nine-year student ... just the thought of the merger, without more information, I don’t think I’d be in favor of it," he said. "I’m very pleased personally with the school system."

But Kellie Weeks, parent of two Gainesville school students, said the call for a merger isn’t unreasonable.

"I wouldn’t like to see it happen, but I think it is a viable solution, especially with our budget problems," she said. "I’d save money as a taxpayer, that’s for sure."

Weeks said instead of merging systems, she’d like to see the Gainesville school system cut transportation costs by eliminating schools of choice. She also said she believes the number of out-of-city tuition students the system accepts should be limited in the future to help cut costs.

Dyer said the proposed merger is nothing new to her.

"When things get difficult the merger always comes up," she said.

Dyer said a study completed 10 years ago revealed merging the two school systems would not produce substantial financial savings and that neither the Hall County or Gainesville school systems and communities were eager to merge.

Rogers said he believes the school board should consider allowing residents to vote on the proposed merger within the next three years to allow time for another in-depth merger savings study to be completed.

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