A tax increase likely will be one of the options for filling a nearly $5 million deficit when Columbia County’s school board meets Tuesday.
At a budget hearing this past week, Superintendent Charles Nagle painted a gloomy outlook for next school year’s budget, telling board members that years of state funding cuts, state-mandated health insurance increases and rising enrollments have left few options for balancing next year’s $178 million budget.
“This is the sixth budget I’ve presented, and it’s probably the worst,” Nagle said.
With a series of charts and graphs, Nagle showed how state funding has risen just 2 percent in the past 12 years, while student enrollment in Columbia County has risen 29 percent to the current 24,400 – with more than 400 new students expected next year.
For the 2013-14 budget, the state is hitting the county with a combination of funding cuts and mandated health insurance increases that, after the system dips into its reserves, still leaves a gap of nearly $5 million, the superintendent said.
“Basically, we’re looking at a $4.6 million deficit,” he said. “That’s the flavor of the day.”
That deficit would be far worse if the system hadn’t raised the tax rate by a half-mill three years ago, he said, hinting that he’ll likely propose a 1-mill tax increase when the board discusses the budget again Tuesday.
That would produce about $4 million in additional revenue at a cost to taxpayers of about $50 per year per $100,000 in home value, Nagle said.
“I see my role as an advocate for the education system,” said School Board Chairwoman Regina Buccafusco. “Our main job is to be an advocate for education.... Somebody has to fight for education. That’s why I could consider raising taxes. Bottom line, that’s what I’m saying.”
With a tax rate of 17.59 mills, a 1-mill increase would still leave the school system just more than a mill under the state cap of 20 mills – a ceiling that many systems already have hit.
“We’re one of the few counties that’s still under 20 mills,” Nagle said. “We’re one of the few counties that still has a full calendar” without reducing the number of days of instruction below 180.
“I don’t see how we’re going to reduce $4 million without serious changes,” he added.
The school board meets in another budget review session Tuesday, May 14, at 3:30 p.m., followed by their regular meeting at 5:30 p.m.
The county commission also held a budget hearing Tuesday, making no changes and noting that the tax digest is expected to settle with a 1.5 percent increase in value compared to last year.
Their next discussion is set for May 21.