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Tax hike part of Hall schools budget approval
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What’s next

Here are steps leading to the Hall County Board of Education’s final OK of its 2013-14 budget:

• Public hearings are set for 5 p.m. June 17, and 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. June 24 at the central offices, 711 Green St., Gainesville.

• The final budget is scheduled for approval and the tax rate set at the June 24 meeting.

The Hall County Board of Education voted Monday night to OK a tentative $200 million budget for fiscal 2013-14, which begins July 1.

Officials are looking at setting a tax rate of 19.25 mills, or .76 mills higher than the current rate of 18.49, when it gives final approval to the budget on June 24.

One mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in property value, which is assessed at 40 percent. Those owning $150,000 homes would see their tax bills rise from $1,109 to $1,155, not counting exemptions.

“That pays for just a little bit of extra compensation for our employees” and helps produce an ending budget surplus of about $7.8 million, which, when compared to the total budget, “isn’t much of a cushion,” Superintendent Will Schofield told board members.

Public hearings on the budget are set for June 17 and June 24.

Hall’s tight budget got tighter when administrators learned the latest numbers in the county’s tax digest, or list of taxable properties, on Friday. The digest reflected a 2.5 percent decrease from last year’s amount.

Officials had been told to initially expect a 1.5 percent decrease, translating “into almost another million of lost revenues we need to accommodate,” Schofield said.

“Five years into cutting (budgets), I think we all are coming to the conclusion that there’s not much more to cut,” he told the board.

The district is expecting $17 million in state funding cuts, as well as increased employer health insurance premium and teacher retirement contribution costs totaling $3.2 million.

For the first time in the last five years, school officials are budgeting for a midyear allocation from the state based on growth in enrollment. They have set the amount at $2 million, as “that is about where it has run the past three years,” Schofield said.

“I’m not completely comfortable doing that, but we did it this year, just in terms of the revenues,” he said.

Also, numbers “show us balancing next year’s budget by using half of our remaining savings,” or between $6 million and $8 million.

In terms of employee pay, system officials decided this year to scuttle longevity increases, or step raises, which would go to about 30 percent of its employees, in favor of “taking a similar amount of money and spreading it among all of our staff,” Schofield said.

At the same time, officials have reduced employees’ daily rate of pay, but the net effect will be a $600 raise for employees.

“In spite of the fact that it’s inarguable that all of us are making less money than we were five years ago, when we compare ourselves to our neighbors, (Hall County Schools) has remained extremely competitive,” Schofield said.

“That’s what we’ve got to gauge ourselves by — we’ve got to be market-sensitive and do the best we can by our people.”

Nath Morris, the school board chairman, said he believes Hall schools are financially “in a pretty good position when compared to some other districts.

“I’ve talked to other boards ... and they’re going through the same things. In 2008, we had hoped (the downturn would last no more than) a couple of years and we’d come back out, but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Morris said if woes continue, “we’ll have to get our employees in and talk about our entire package of compensation and see where we go from here.”

“The good news is we’re still able to have school,” Schofield said. “We’ve got some great programs. The challenge is going to be ... sustainability.”

If state revenues and the local digest continue to slide, “we’re going to have to get our teachers, classified employees and leaders around the table and say, ’It doesn’t work anymore. We’re going to have to come up with a future plan and do the best that we possibly can.’”

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