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A tale of two budgets

Posted: May 19, 2012 - 11:01pm

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

That, in a nutshell, describes the budget process for Columbia County government and the school system.

For the county government, keeping a lid on personnel expenses as growing sales-tax revenues help fuel a building boom has allowed the county to cut taxes three of the past four years.

Those cuts haven’t been huge, but they are actual cuts in the tax rate. And with the state having locked down reassessments for the past three years, property owners also haven’t been hit with “stealth” increases from rising home values.

Yet the county’s tax digest has grown, and is expected to rise 2 to 3 percent this year because of continued residential and commercial construction. Columbia County in many cases has been an island of prosperity in the midst of difficult economic times.

Balancing the ledger for the county’s school board has been far more difficult, however – and the future is so bleak that Superintendent Charles Nagle this past week warned board members to expect this to be the last “good” year for quite a while.

If this year’s budget is “good,” then the worst of times will indeed be bleak.

What makes it so difficult to balance next year’s budget, especially when county government seems to be doing so well? Just plug in these numbers: Under Georgia’s funding formula, the state budget is supposed to supply 80 percent of the funding for local public schools. “Now, we’re getting 52 percent,” Nagle said.

The decline in funding is bad enough, but it’s especially tough on small systems with struggling farm economies, and on larger systems with high growth rates. As one of the latter, with roughly a new school full of children added to the enrollment each year, Columbia County increasingly struggles to meet the educational expectations of its citizens without asking them to pay more for it.

Last year’s half-mill tax increase got the system over the previous state-driven budget crisis. Next year’s larger, state-created budget gap of nearly $13 million will be filled mostly by cutting educator positions and dipping into the system’s reserve funds.

And that’s the basis for Nagle’s warning: Those wells are running dry. Board members, in desperation, even floated the idea of asking the county to trim the amount it charges for collecting taxes on behalf of the school system; but as Tax Commissioner Kay Allen points out, that charge is set by state law.

Without some massive economic turnaround, or a transformation in state funding, next year’s budget holes will be filled by telling children to stay at home while school system employees, from teachers to bus drivers, take unpaid days off.

Worst of times? Not yet, but it sure looks like they’re coming.

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Comments (13)

colcores

Property Tax Assessment

Just got my new property tax assessment and my home was assessed 14.5% higher. I consider that a stealth increase especially since there have been no improvements to the property.

Barry Paschal

Mine, too

I got a big reassessment notice Saturday, too. We're seeing what happens when the state artificially freezes values for three years rather than letting the free market work. I'm guessing they'll have lots of appeals this year after this sticker-shock.

Riverman1

Anyone Think Values Increased?

Does anyone think values actually increased that much over the last 3 years? I don't think the intent of the law was to allow a big catch-up after the freeze. The economy is still terrible.

Nagle and the BOE should start making plans of how they will save and make the budget. Fewer teachers, at least a week of furlough on those days when little is accomplished. That's a way to cut salaries locally.

Maybe look at NAGLE'S IDEA from before of dropping middle school sports. He appointed a committee previously to study the matter. There is one article where he diverted $125,000 from hiring new middle school coaches to the general budget.

As the mood of the editoral suggests, something has to be done. Public school education is going to undergo major changes as everything else has.

Barry Paschal

Middle-school sports

Notwithstanding the fact that $125k is a drop in the bucket for a budget this large, Nagle couldn't get the board to support the middle school sports cut because the board members got such a negative response from parents. There is a distinct downside to bending to the public's will, and this is a good example.

Of course, the public also demands full-year schedules, long and numerous holidays and small class sizes, and wants it all without having to pay for it. After a while, there's only so much budget-balancing that can be done on the backs of the employees.

Little Lamb

Cost Saving

Yes, the demand for year ’round school is a budget buster. Many savings can be realized by going to a shorter school calendar (Labor Day to Memorial Day), four-day school week (Tuesday through Friday), eliminating summer school (if you fail, take the class again next year), expanding the size of areas around schools where you cannot get bus pickup and dropoff, and cutting back on extracurricular after school activities.

By shortening the school calendar, I also mean cutting back on the total days (and hours) of instruction. That way, you can actually cut the base salary of teachers and other employees in the schools. The "furlough" system is cruel and capricious. Just cut the salary honestly.

Barry Paschal

Well, see...

...that's another of those state mandates. Base teacher pay is set by the state salary schedule, not by local systems. "Shortening the school calendar" would REQUIRE furloughs, because teacher pay is based on the state-required 180-day student calendar. Counties can cut the supplement they pay to teachers on top of the state base, but it isn't that much money.

That's a part of this that probably hasn't been adequately described: The state sets the number of staff members a county must provide based on the number of students, and it also dictates how much they have to be paid - and it's providing LESS money to pay them. A county can cut any positions outside of the state mandate, but Columbia County did most of that a couple of budget cycles ago. They've managed to hang on to a few school nurses and a few more parapros than required (and state-funded), but that's about it. The low-hanging fruit just isn't there anymore; that was picked long ago.

I absolutely agree on the cutback in bus routes; they pick up far closer than the state requires. It would still be a minor amount, but every bit helps.

(By the way: When I said the public demands "full-year schedules," I didn't mean a year-round calendar; I meant the public wants school for all 180 days - mostly because of day-care considerations.)

Little Lamb

180 days

It's the 180 days that I'm talking about. Sure, it's a state requirement, but we have seen that local school systems can get around that through some kind of waiver system. They call them furlough days, and the kids actually go for fewer than 180.

It is time to attack that magical 180-day standard at the state level. That takes the legislature, I know.

Roy Barnes knows that you don't talk in public about lowering teacher base salaries, and I suspect Nathan Deal read that chapter of state election history, so that sacred cow will be a tough nut to crack.

We've been learning that the "end of course" tests are taken two or more weeks before the end of classes. After that, essentially no instruction takes place. Why not just shut school down when the EOC tests have been taken?

Barry Paschal

Response

Counties can get a waiver to the state-required number of days; that's how they're able to do furloughs in the first place.

Not ever class has an end-of-course test. But classes still go on after them, and the classes still have final exams the last week of school.

No doubt some days are more productive than others.

Little Lamb

Logic

Okay, not every class has an official end-of-course test. But for those that do, just let the end-of-course test serve as the final exam and dismiss the students for the rest of the semester.

And, for those that don't, insist that the teachers give the school-generated final exams at the same time as the end-of-course exams and then dismiss those students for the rest of the semester.

Then, furlough the teachers after they grade the final exams and calculate the grades. Voilà, instant savings and no time wasted on letting students watch Hollywood movies or play internet games.

Barry Paschal

Low-hanging fruit

That's just another example of low-hanging fruit - in this case, even, imaginary low-hanging fruit.

You can't just arbitrarily send children home. The state requires them to be in class 180 days per year. Deviation from that 180 days requires a state-approved waiver. Also, what you're describing narrowly applies only to some students; surely you aren't suggesting some students go to school for, say, 170 days, others 175, others 180 (elementary, for example, has no EOCT).

As I told Riverman in a similar conversation: You're ordinarily someone with good, thoughtful ideas. But you're offering suggestions that not only aren't feasible, but that in many cases run counter to state law or department of education regulations. If you want to make worthwhile suggestions, it probably would be useful to learn more about the process.

You seem to be under the impression that kids finish their work a couple of weeks before school ends, and then spend the rest of the time twiddling their thumbs or watching TV. You probably should seek enlightenment by discussing that anecdotal view with a few high school teachers.

Little Lamb

I did

I learned about the Hollywood movies between completion of the end-of-course tests and the last day of school from a Columbia County high school teacher (who shall remain nameless, of course). This teacher says the practice of no instruction after EOC tests is widespread.

Barry Paschal

I'd love to know...

...where that teacher is, and how he or she gets away with it. That's definitely a supervisory failure.

Craig Spinks

When was the last time...

that the CCBOE underwent comprehensive financial and personnel audits by competent, disinterested, out-of-state organizations? And the GDOE, SACS as well as Cherry, Bekaert and Holland LLP don't meet all three of these criteria.

And I don't want to hear that "we don't have the money." Times of fiscal austerity are those occasions when efficacy and efficiency are of most critical importance. Now we can't afford to eschew audits analyzing the efficacy and efficiency of the efforts of our local school board.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

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