THE Jefferson school board unanimously passed a millage rate increase of 1.429 mills Thursday after holding three public hearings on the matter. The increase brings the 2012-2013 school millage rate to 14.72 mills, a 10.8 percent increase from the previous rate of 13.283. A total of five citizens attended the three public hearings the city board of education (BOE) held to explain the rate increase.
The school system’s bond millage rate remained the same at 3.345.
The millage rate hike is largely the result of lost state funding due to austerity cuts. Jefferson took a $1.897 million hit in this year’s budget and has lost out on $10 million worth of state funds in the past 10 years. The school system eliminated positions, cut the drivers’ education program at the high school, enacted eight furlough days again and used reserve money when planning this year’s budget.
Still, the lack of state funds this year left the BOE having to make up the differences with a tax increase.
“Obviously, we’ve done a lot of cutting from the budget,” Jefferson Schools superintendent John Jackson said. “We have been relying on our reserves for a good while. But we’re to a point now where cutting the budget is becoming extremely difficult and our reserves are getting low.”
This is the Jefferson school system’s first increase of at least one mill since 2002, when the rate went over 14 mills.
The school system lowered its millage rate in 2007 to 13.242 and increased it slightly in 2009 to 13.283.
Jackson said Jefferson Schools have been as thrifty as possible, pointing out that of the 180 school districts in the state, only one spent less per student than Jefferson.
“We’ve been careful,” Jackson said. “I feel very safe and confident in saying that we’ve been as careful and as frugal as possible as we knew how to be.”
But the school system is beyond the point of “cutting to the bone” board members say.
“We’re already there,” Jefferson school board chairman Ronnie Hopkins said.
Both Hopkins and board member Willie Hughey said the state’s withholding of funds is its way of shifting the burden to local boards.
“I think what it’s coming down to is that they are going to shift as much back to the local level as they can get away with,” Hughey said.
Hopkins notes the ramifications.
“You’ve heard me say that I felt that what the state was doing would create the largest tax increase in Georgia history,” he said. “That they were going to step back and say, ‘It wasn’t us. It was the local folks that did it.’ But the reason the local folks have to do it is because the state will not accept its responsibility to fund local education.”