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School boards approve preliminary budgets
Hall County looks to roll-up
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School Preliminary Budgets at a Glance:

Hall County Schools

Budget: $194 million (General Fund). $298 million (Total)

Furlough Days: 10

Positions Cut: 22 through attrition.

Millage Rate: Not available. The school board has preliminarily agreed to roll up the current rate of 17.67 mills. The maximum allowed for a roll-up would be at 19.31 mills.
Other Highlights: Expecting to pay $1.4 million more in health insurance and $1.3 million more in retirement costs even with fewer employees. The school is spending more than $1 million less in instruction.

Gainesville City Schools

Budget: $54.5 million (General Fund). $68.4 million (Total)

Furlough Days: 10

Positions Cut: 24 through attrition, nonrenewals and shifting employees.

Millage Rate: 7.39 mills, same as last fiscal year.

Other Highlights: Expecting to pay $1 million more in health insurance and retirement costs. The system is closing the employee day care facility. Seven district office employees, including the superintendent, will be assigned to a school for administrative support for an average of once a week for 25 weeks.

There are some who call education “priceless,” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with a price tag.

Hall County Schools and Gainesville City Schools both passed preliminary budgets that weigh the challenges of educating students with a decline in available revenues.

As part of that, the Hall County Board of Education is looking to roll up its property tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year.

The school board on Monday passed a preliminary budget of $194 million from its general fund and $298 million for its total budget.

With reports that the local tax digest would decrease by 7.75 percent, health insurance costs for teachers are increasing by $1.4 million and the state is withholding $19.2 million in austerity cuts, school officials said they were left with little choice but to raise the property tax rate if they’re going to uphold standards in education.

“We’ve almost cut everything we can,” said Nath Morris, chairman of the school board. “There is going to be a severe cut in services if we cut much further.”

Currently, the millage rate for Hall County Schools is 17.67 mills.

Hall Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said he didn’t have an estimate yet of what a roll-up rate would look like, but the maximum allowed would be 19.31 mills.

“I don’t anticipate it going that high,” he said.

While other revenue sources like state funding are dropping, the roll-up aims to bring property tax revenues to the same level as the previous year.

The roll-up means a higher rate. However, it doesn’t legally qualify as a tax increase. Depending on the valuations of individual properties, the amount owners pay could go up or down.

Although the Gainesville City Schools Board of Education did not propose a roll-up of its current 7.39 millage rate, nor was one recommended by financial leaders, concerns were raised about future financial health after the approval of its $54.5 million preliminary general fund budget.

“If there’s no roll-up next year and we don’t want our surplus to go to zero, then, you know, your only other choice is to do a tax increase,” said David Syfan, Gainesville schools board member. “It’s sort of a no-win situation considering what the state’s done in funding, the decrease in the tax digest and we’re sort of weathering that perfect storm.”

Gainesville approved a $68.4 million total budget and will tap into its reserve fund by $3.4 million to match expenditures. As proposed, the budget would leave slightly more than $3 million left in the reserve fund.

“I’m fine with the preliminary budget proposal,” Syfan said. “But I think we need to look hard at it before the final budget and think about what we want to do and be thinking about next year, too.”

Local funding for city schools is down about $1 million, and state austerity cuts kept another $4.7 million in state funding out of the system’s budget.

Health benefits and teachers’ retirement will cost the city system another $1 million.

Along with the rate increase, Hall school officials say they are continuing to cut costs even with an increasing student body.

“I think it’s fascinating that we’re up 700 students from where we were four years ago and you’ll see a budget that’s $27 million less than the budget was four years ago. Interesting times for education,” said Schofield, who took the opportunity a few times Monday night to provide commentary on the drop in education funding.

Gainesville’s enrollment has increased more than 1,000 students since 2008 and over that time period, the system has earned $21 million more than the state allocated.

As part of their cuts, Hall schools are implementing 10 furlough days, up from eight in the last school year.

However, Schofield said he’s hopeful the system may be able to reinstate one instructional day on Feb. 15, 2013, and one teacher workday on May 31.

“As a father, I think it’s sad that our children are going to school less than they were five years ago,” Schofield said. “I think our culture has made some determinations about what’s important. And it seems that kids going to school 180 days isn’t in there.”

Gainesville also has proposed 10 furlough days, but will re-evaluate that in November and February to determine if days can be added back on.

“At this time, with our budget situation and the data we have from our tax digest and other revenue sources, we are not prepared to begin without a 10-day reduction,” said Merrianne Dyer, Gainesville superintendent.

Gainesville will look to cut 24 positions through attrition, nonrenewals and shifting employees. The employee day care facility also will be closed.

Hall proposed to cut 22 positions from last year and expects to cut 5 to 10 more — all through attrition.

Schofield wasn’t the only one mourning the current state of education funding at the school board meeting.

Chairman Morris added, “We can’t survive on the way we’re funding education. It’s unsustainable. The teachers are suffering. The kids could be suffering.”

However, Board Member Craig Herrington pointed to the resiliency of the school system and its staff. Despite cuts, he said, education is continuing to thrive in the system.

“We have students graduating and going to Ivy League schools,” he said. “Our test scores — even though they may not be where we want them to be — are going up.”

Both preliminary budgets will be open for public viewing for two weeks before the boards vote to approve a final budget before the end of the month.