Gordon County BOE votes 3-2 to keep millage rate of 19.172 instead of taking rollback

One person spoke passionately…and bluntly…to the Gordon County Board of Education Monday afternoon during the third and final public hearing concerning the millage rate proposal of 19.172, which will keep the same millage rate as last year, instead of taking a partial rollback of 18.990 or full rollback of 18 mills, while a school administrator asked the Board to keep the millage rate but didn’t have the accurate numbers for that millage rate. Only five of the Gordon County Board of Education members were available for the vote; members Chris Johnson and Bobby Hall were both absent from the meeting.

As stated previously, even though the millage rate will stay the same, it is still considered a tax increase because the tax digest in Gordon County increased this year after property assessments.

What that means for a homeowner under the homestead exemption with a fair market value on their home of $150,000 (the average property value for a home in Gordon County), the cost difference at the current 19.172 mills, the annual tax would be $1,111.98, or $92.66 a month. A total rollback to 18.000 mills, the cost per year would be $1,044.00, or $87.00 per month.

While that might not seem significant, to a county that has a high rate of citizens that make less than the average income, it is a lot of money that is usually not budgeted into family expenses.

Gordon County resident Renae Pearce passed out a printout of an email that she sent to the Board more than a week prior, that she said she received no responses from.

“When I reached out to a couple of (Board members) and asked why I received no response, I did get to talk with them. I’m not going to be speaking of that because I know you saw it so there’s no reason to say you didn’t. I am speaking on behalf of more than one citizen today and I am going to read an email that someone asked me to read to you guys,” said Pearce.

The email Pearce read stated:

“People usually frown on tax increases in general. In order for the public to demonstrate a level of support for a tax increase, there must be a high degree of trust and confidence in the elected officials proposing the increase. To be blunt, the public does not trust this Board of Education with its money. This Board only devoted one work session to the planning and study of the current budget, and after shirking the responsibility for careful planning and study, adopted an unbalanced budget. This Board then approved a policy for making unlimited projects of up to $20,000 each to be carried out without the Board’s approval; a policy that was strongly opposed by many citizens, and a policy which certainly does not reflect responsibility in monitoring the unbalanced budget.  (This) Board’s fix for all of this is to simply hike the tax rate, basically asking the citizens they were elected to serve to make up for the Board’s incompetent performance as stewards of public funds. This Board has a huge public relations problem and a huge public trust problem. Unfortunately, citizens do not see an effort by the Board to remedy either of these problems. Therefore, lacking sufficient trust in the Board’s proven financial responsibility, myself and my fellow citizens say NO to any proposed tax increase.”

Pearce then gave her own additional thoughts to the Board:

“One of the things I wanted to bring up is I did have a conversation, and I’m not going to name names because I don’t want the rest of you to flock to them, trying to intimidate them because they had a private conversation about it, but their statement to me was there were certain (Board) members worried about a budget shortfall,” said Pearce. “You guys voted for a $20,000 no oversight, no approval (purchase policy). Where do you think the shortfall could have been handled? By a $5,000 no approval (per project)…(by) a lower amount? Which would require you to do a little bit of extra work but that was what you were elected for - to work for us; to take care of our schools and work within a budget. You haven’t even bothered to do away with the superintendent (former superintendent Dr. Susan Remillard) that is no longer here and was not good for the county…you’re trying to vote on her budget and without even looking at it to see what you can cut besides hitting people that are on fixed income. The other problem I have is there are a ton of people on social media that post out directly to you guys and post their distaste for having a tax increase or their inability to absorb one because, unlike you guys with our money, we do have to budget. And some of these people on fixed incomes don’t budget for you guys inability to work a budget and live within that budget. So ‘NO’ is the only way. And I’m not threatening, but I’m telling you, I will be one of the most vocal opponents of any of you that vote yes and rerun (for office).”

The next to speak was current Red Bud Middle School principal Amy Stewart, who spoke confusingly on behalf of keeping the same millage as last year, asking for the Board to keep the current “9.631 millage rate,” which is not the millage rate the Board was voting on.

“Based on the information provided on GordonCounty.org, the proposed rate would result in a minimal increase per family, but if elected it could provide for things previously not allowed due to budget constraints,” said Stewart. “There’s lots of things, but I felt like one concrete example are that our nurses currently work only seven hours each day in our schools and therefore are not on campus during normal operating hours for students. Currently my middle school nurse has had more than 1200 visits to our clinic so far this school year. She is hustling and multi-tasking from the moment she enters the building to provide care for students who come to school sick, or with an injury or to dispense medication to those who must take it daily. In addition, school nurses must assist with immunization compliance, sports physicals, hearing, dental and vision screen, scoliosis and much more. Most school campuses also have special needs students with significant needs and health issues or disabilities that provide professional care or immediate response. School nurses are critical in helping to maintain the attendance rate each of our schools exhibit. For example, of the more than 1200 visits to Red Bud Middle’s clinic in the past eight weeks, less than 10 percent were sent home. The rest of the students were evaluated and treated if necessary and able to return to class so they could continue learning. Additional funding for the proposed millage rate would be sufficient in allowing Gordon County Schools to provide nurses to work eight-hour days so that they are present from the time students arrive to the time they are dismissed. This is just one of many examples on how the increase in funding generated could greatly benefit our students. As an administrator, as a tax payer, as a parent of a Gordon County student, I strongly support the approval of the 9.631 millage rate.”

The 9.631 millage rate that Stewart kept referencing is, again, not the millage rate proposed by the Gordon County Board of Education, but is instead the millage rate that the Gordon County Board of Commissioners proposed for the county.

Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Fraker then showed a few slides to review how the system proposed keeping the 19.172 millage rate instead of taking the partial or full rollback.

“We each year go through a budget process and we use projects and gather information from the schools. The budget annually has to be approved by June 30, that’s required by the state,” said Fraker. “It’s approved prior to getting the digest. Our tax digest information this year was received in August which led us to these hearings, because each year the Board is tasked at setting a millage rate that will support our school budget. When we build a budget, it is also centered on our school goals for teaching and learning, then we follow it up each month with financial reports at each of our Board meetings. Some considerations regarding our budget this year and the millage rate, right off the bat next year we have a few things that will require more out of our budget. One being our Freeport exemptions this year for the county will go to 100 percent, which will mean about a loss of $300,000 in tax revenue in the future for us. We always have budget unknowns from the state department when they set budgets to give to the schools, but one thing we do anticipate is Governor Kemp had promised a $5,000 raise for teachers and this year they passed along $3,000 and it’s anticipated that next year he will pass along the additional $2,000. And for that, the cost to our system is above what the state provides for us; it’s $400,000 for certified faculty and then $80,000 for every one percent raise we give to classified (employees), and this year we gave a three percent raise to classified to balance what the certified (employees) were being given by the state. Positions that we’ve not yet fully restored from our last recession, we still have the bulk of our custodians being provided by a staffing agency and pre-k teacher pay was frozen with no step increases back during the last recession and we haven’t restored that. If we want to look at restoring that in the future, it would cost the system about $520,000 to be able to do that. Of course we always have the rising cost of education, we see it as shoppers. Every time we go to the store, everything’s cost is rising and it’s no different. But we also have to balance the need to improve our compensation with our benefits and salaries to make sure we are competing with surrounding systems to be able to keep the best teachers and retain those teachers over time, so we are putting the best people that we can in front of our children. We must maintain an adequate fund balance. Ms. Goble (finance director Mendy Goble) and I met with a consultant on Friday to talk about bond ratings, and their recommendation, or bar that they set, is to have a higher bond rating, you must retain at least three months of operating expenses in your fund balance, which is about where we are right now. So we do have a need to maintain what we have in our fund balance for the future.”

Fraker also mentioned a news story from last week where a state fiscal economist states there is a 50/50 change of a recession in 2020.

“That’s always a concern,” said Fraker. “Because the last time we had a recession, the way it effected our employees was you lost 10 days of pay when we did furloughs; if both spouses worked for the school system, it was 20 days, which is a month of pay. We are very sensitive to how that could affect our employees moving forward if we were to get in that situation again.”

Fraker also explained that the current millage rate of 19.172 is the lowest since 2011.

“We’ve decided before of the need to get to a balanced budget,” said Fraker. “That is my goal for the future to continue to look at what we have in the budget, continue to look for ways to balance our budget. I know some people have brought up concerns of projects that were in the past. Every time something is brought up, even though it was before me, I have looked up those to see what did we do and what we can do better as a school system. I have not found that any departments have ever gone over their budget. There’s always ways to get better but we have also started to put other checks and balances in place as a school system as far as our PO process that we are using and how those approvals are going through several people and also in the policy that was approved for spending is starting at $5,000 to get informal bids, then formal bids then at $20,000, a sealed bid process. So we have started looking at ways already as we go into our next budget year; of course we will look for ways to do that but always trying to look for ways to increase the quality of education we are providing our students.”

Fraker then discussed balancing the budget. By staying at the 19.172 millage rate, revenues will be $64,119,584, with expenditures at $66,603,630, for a deficit of $2,484,046. If the system took the rollback of 18.000 mills, the revenues would be $63,113,781, for a total deficit of $3,489,849.

“So even staying at the current millage rate, our deficit is at just over $2.4 million,” said Fraker. “When you talk about ways to close that gap in the future and balancing our budget, I think it’s always important to look at that we’re always increasing the quality of our instructional program and maintaining our facilities too. Our general fund budget, that doesn’t include grants we may receive, a little over 85 percent is all salaries and benefits. Then 3.71 percent is utilities and 11.17 percent is other, which is security, transportation, any kind of teaching supplies and materials, and maintenance. So when we talk about cutting $2.4 million dollars out of our budget, it’s almost sure to affect people. And we try to be careful how we’re affecting our employees at the same time. We’re a people business and we keep students at the center of what we’re doing, and that will always be the goal no matter what our budget is or what our economy does in the future. We try to be prepared and try to plan ahead.”

Fraker then recommended to maintain the millage rate of 19.172.

Board member Dana Stewart made the motion to accept the millage rate, while member Jason Hendrix gave the second. Board Chair Charlie Walraven then gave the time of discussion for the Board.

“I’d like to point out again that Dr. Fraker has inherited this budget and she’s trying to make it work with what she has and I appreciate that,” said Board member Eddie Hall. “But I don’t know of any budgets at any company that I’ve ever worked for, where you start to immediately charge more without finding ways to reduce expenses, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing. We did not review this budget other than the one night we went over it, we did not look for ways to cut expenses. To address some of the things we’ve talked about today: Losing Freeport- it is a hit but we’ve got the after school funds that we seem to continue to accumulate with no good place to spend them it seems; We’re talking about raises that the Governor may make- if he did it’d be in the budget after this one. It wouldn’t be in this one; Our bond rating- we haven’t even decided about any building projects. I’m sure there will be some, but from going through that process before I don’t think there’ll be a shortage of people to loan us money if we want to go that route; Talk about a recession- a 50/50 shot? Some people say we’re in a recession now. I don’t think nobody could see the big one that hit that was really a depression. I don’t think we can plan on what may happen. And I do agree, we need to get to a balanced budget, but I don’t think adding more money to the pot is the first choice to balance the budget. I think you have to look at cuts first. Then if that doesn’t work, look at putting more money in the pot.”

Hendrix then said that he had read every email but was still in support of keeping the current millage rate.

“I’ve read numerous Facebook posts, but I also took the opportunity to call as many administrators, principals, teachers that I could. The people that would be most affected by this if we took money from the budget would be our people trying to teach our students,” said Hendrix. “I’m a Gordon County taxpayer but in no way can I compromise the quality of education and I feel like (taking the rollback) could possibly do that. I wish everybody would take the opportunity to talk to a principal, talk to an administrator. Some of them were almost in tears talking about how much they love our students. My kids will be at the school until 7:30 tonight; somebody employed by Gordon County Schools will see my kids today more than I will. I want the best people possible seeing them. There are ways to cut, there’s a lot of ways to cut, but I cannot consciously jeopardize the quality of the education. I cannot vote to support a rollback. As a Board of Education member, I’m looking first at the quality of education, then for the community. I understand (the community’s concerns) but I have to look first at education.”

The motion passed 3-2, with Stewart, Walraven and Hendrix voting to continue the current millage rate, and Eddie Hall and Kacee Smith voting against.