Madison County students and teachers will have a full school year in 2014-15 for the first time since 2008.
With the downturn in the economy, schools across the state and nation have faced diminished revenues in recent years. Madison County has been no different. And local leaders have shortened school calendars to reduce costs. For example, last year, Madison County’s school calendar was 10 days shorter than standard.
These “amended calendar” or furlough days reduced expenses by roughly $2 million for the school system, which helped offset a shortage of revenues. But officials made those changes reluctantly, since cutting school days reduces teaching time and diminishes kids’ learning experience. School system employees are also pinched by the furlough days, since they’ve seen their pay reduced by two weeks.
But, at least for next year, the strains of furlough days will be shed. Students will be in class for 180 days. Teachers will work 190 days, including pre-and-post planning. This restoration of a full calendar is due to increased funding from the state for the upcoming year.
Estimated school system revenues in the 2014-15 budget, which was passed June 24, are up by $3.45 million, or nine percent, for the upcoming school year — from $38.4 million last year to $41.8 million. This projected increase comes from the state level. The school system’s local property tax rate (millage rate) will remain steady at 16.99 mills. The school system anticipates $11.16 million in revenue from local property taxes. Any growth in the county digest — the county’s overall property value — could bring in more property tax revenue, but the school system is not raising rates this year to boost local income.
Instead, the county school system is getting an $800,000 increase in “equalization” money for 2014-15. Last year, the county system suffered a $1.92 million reduction in those funds.
Gov. Nathan Deal and the state legislature also temporarily reduced the “austerity cuts” all Georgia systems face. The state established a Quality Basic Education (QBE) school funding formula in 1985, but the state has not fully funded systems to meet those guidelines in a number of years. Madison County school leaders say the local system was shorted $3.7 million last year, according to what the QBE requires. Likewise, local officials say the state has shorted Madison County by a total of $28 million since 2003 in QBE funds. But Deal and state lawmakers put more funds into education in 2014, which means that Madison County’s austerity cuts were reduced from $3.7 million last year to $2.6 million, an addition of another $1.1 million in revenue. That money, coupled with the increase in equalization funding, allowed school leaders to bump the school calendar back from 170 to 180 days for students.
“We are very thankful for the reduction in our austerity by 1.1 million,” said Madison County school superintendent Allen McCannon. “We still have concerns about the equalization formula, but we’re still very pleased that we got $800,000 of that $2 million we lost back. And with those funds we’re able to have a full, 180-day schedule for our students and a full 190-day schedule for our teachers and school employees. We’re thankful to the governor and the legislature for that, but the only thing we do want to say is we want to remind everybody that we’re still $2.5 million short. So there’s still an austerity reduction, but we still are getting a cut. We don’t want people to think the austerity is over.”
Just like last year, the Madison County school system will receive funds from the state for qualifying as a “Charter” system. That allotment is $395,000. The county system also has more funds this year, because the state temporarily delayed a planned increase on insurance costs on classified employees, which would have added another $300,000 in expenses for the school system.
This year’s school budget does include several new personnel expenses. For instance, the teacher retirement employer share increased by one percent for the school system. Assistant superintendent Bonnie Knight said about 15-to-20 teachers will earn higher degrees over the next school year and that money must be budgeted for step increases in pay that will accompany those degrees. An English-as-a-second-language program is being added at Danielsville Elementary School. This will include adding a half-time position. Likewise, three positions are being added countywide at the elementary school level. The system is also moving an assistant superintendent position back from part-time to full-time, as Sherrie Gibney-Sherman leaves the system and Mike Williams takes over, effective July 1.
This year’s budget also addresses some maintenance needs, such as a new gym floor at Ila Elementary School.
“That will be the first elementary school gym we redo and get rid of the carpet,” said Knight. “It was the one in the worst shape. We’ll do that and then hit the other elementary schools. We hope to have it done by school.”
School officials also plan to resurface the track at the high school sports complex.
“We committed in our SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) to keep the tennis courts and track open to the public,” said McCannon. “So those courts are used a lot. But that was a commitment we made when we did that — that we were going to have public access. And I want to tell you, we’ve been very pleased with how the public has taken responsibility for those facilities and they’re well taken care of. People are very respectful of those facilities. There’s a lot of wear and tear, but we’ve had very few incidents of anything. So we’re very appreciative to the community and think the community is appreciative for being able to use them.”
Though the budget includes some maintenance projects, the system doesn’t fund major construction with property tax money. Those projects — such as the expansion at the high school — are handled with sales tax funds.
While this year’s budget brings a welcome relaxation of financial stress, local officials say they don’t know what the future holds. Knight said area administrators handling finances for area systems are concerned about whether austerity cuts will be increased again next year.
“I was at an all day financial workshop where the Department of Education comes to RESA (Regional Educational Service Agency) and there is concern among the financial folks in surrounding counties that the austerity was reduced because of an election year,” said Knight. “So everyone is watching to see what happens. It may jump back up. So we are definitely not out of the woods. We’re very appreciative, but very cautious. We’re still not at 100 percent funding of a formula that was done in 1985, which we all know, even if it was fully funded, would need some growth to it to be what it really needs to be.”
McCannon said the school system leaders aim to provide the best education possible for kids while also keeping financial burdens off property owners’ backs as much as they can. He noted that the school system eliminated its bond millage rate in recent years. That tax rate was levied to cover old construction debts. The board of education has also kept the tax rate steady at 16.99 in recent years. McCannon said that when the economy hit a downturn after 9/11 in 2001, the total combined mill rate for the school system was 18.02 mills.
“So, for all practical purposes, our total millage rate is down one mill from before all this started,” said McCannon. “I don’t people understand all the hard work that everybody has done to keep that there. And I’m just so proud of them. I don’t think people realize that when all this economic downturn started, that we did away with the bond millage, we didn’t bring it back. And we kept the total mill one mill lower than it was. As a taxpayer of Madison County, I’m proud of that, that we’ve been able to do that.”
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