On Thursday, July 11, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines agreed to discuss the process for approving the school board’s proposed new fiscal year budget and the planned hike in millage (property tax) rate needed to fund the budget.

Superintendent, I am new to the community myself, but I don’t know if a personal profile has ever been done on you in the media for the Walker County public, so tell me a little bit about yourself.

Yeah, maybe when I first started they did some things, way back when. But, I have not followed the typical path to becoming a school superintendent. My path was I went to work right out of college. I got married. I went to work for a sign company. I worked there for a number of years. I left there and went to PNS School and Office Supply, so that was kind of my introduction to teachers, because they dealt with, primarily, schools and teachers.

I worked for three-and-a-half years there and went from working as the night manager to the operations manager of the entire organization. And, then, I was actually fired from that position when my wife was nine months pregnant. So, I tell my teachers that I know what that feels like. A lot of time teachers don’t understand that because when they come in and get tenure, that’s a different process. I came from a different world.

And, so, I went from there into toy retail, and I spent 11 years in toy retail. I worked my way from a store manager to a marketing manager for a region and loved it. I did a lot with customer service and with loss prevention. But, I never came home with any of those stories my wife was coming home with as a teacher.

She would come home and tell me these amazing things about her kids. I kept hearing that and thought, you know money will only get so much. I wanted to have that personal connection and to know that I was having some level of impact into the life of a child. I had my own children, so I took that very seriously as well.

I went back at night and got my master’s degree at UTC (University of Tennessee) in special education. Got a job in Catoosa County as a special education teacher and from that point I spent a few years in the classroom. They moved me into administration quickly because of my background. I was an assistant principal and a principal. The superintendent then moved me to the central office in an operational role. I spent six years doing that, and then the seventh year was the year of the tornado.

So, I spent a year rebuilding. I spent $65 million dollars in insurance money (for the school system). It was the largest insurance claim ever in the history of school systems. And, I’m not bragging on that at all, I’m just saying that it was a devastating blow. And I think during that time the Walker County system was looking for a superintendent and one of their board members actually worked in Catoosa and watched me first-hand do that (rebuilding).

And, when I say me, I don’t mean “me.” I had a great team. A great team. But, we did some pretty amazing things and four months later we had the school back open. And that was a pretty daunting feat after the tornado. And, I think they watched that. And they saw the leadership capacity there and they (Walker County) asked me to interview.

And most people don’t realize this, but during that time the job posting came out. And, the job posting for a superintendent is sent to every superintendent in the state, to their school system. And if they have somebody that might fit that, the superintendent will pass that along, thinking ‘I wonder if they are interested in doing that,’?

Well, my superintendent came to me, Ms. Reese — and she was a great mentor to me, and she said ‘Hey, I don’t ever want to be accused of not allowing people to pursue things if they want to. And you’re going to be a superintendent one day, so you might want to consider this.

Well, at the time, my daughter — we have two children — my daughter had just been diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis). So, we were kind of reeling a little bit, and, so I just didn’t feel like the timing was right at that point. And, so, I told Ms. Reese that I’ve got way too much on my plate right now. We just came out of the tornado, I just learned this, and we’re figuring this out. I don’t think I’m gonna do that. And, so, we threw it away.

And, then, February rolled around and the last day for you to put your name in (for the superintendent job) I received three phone calls from Walker County.

They said, “We’ve just been watching you. You need to put your name in for this. And, I felt like that was the Lord’s way of telling me, ‘You know you might want to just at least consider this opportunity,’ so I put my name in and March of that year at the board meeting they named me superintendent.

And, I worked both jobs until I finished my contract in Catoosa that June 30 and then started here July 1. And, this is starting my eighth year, so this has been a great, a great — I don’t even want to use the word “ride” — it’s been a great experience.

It really has. Great people, great teachers, a great community and our students are phenomenal. And, so, for me I don’t consider myself the normal superintendent.

I go out to our schools every day. I like to be around our kids. I like for our kids to see and know me. I like for our community to know who I am. It’s important for me for your child — if you have a child in our system — for him to know who Mr. Raines is and what he does.

When I pull up to a ball field and a kid tells their parents “Mr. Raines is here,” and they are like, “How do you know who Mr. Raines is?” And, they’re like, well, that’s his car because I see him at my school. He comes in my classroom...and that’s important to me. So, I’ve done it a little differently than most of my colleagues. But, that doesn’t mean my way is right and their way is wrong. I would never say that at all.

It’s just the way that I felt like I needed to do it. And, my background was with customers. I’m very customer-focused. I make sure my principals are customer-focused. We don’t have a product, but our students are our customers, and so we have got to make sure we are doing what is right with those students and their parents.

It’s been a great journey for me so far. And, we’ve had some — what I think is — amazing progress, here.

When I started here, we were graduating 69.4% of our kids. We’re graduating 88% of our kids now. That’s not because of me. That’s a great team. But, we’ve made some huge progress.

Mr. Raines, what do you want to accomplish for the school system?

So, the obvious would be that we are graduating 100% of our kids.

What’s stopping us from reaching that goal?

So, you know we’ve made huge progress. We are sitting at 90% at Ridgeland High School and 86% at LaFayette High School. So, we are well on our way of making great progress towards that and even past that.

A higher percentage of our kids are going on to college. That’s a two-year, or four-year or even post-secondary. That’s been a huge increase. It’s gone from about 28% when I started and we are up to about 43% now of our kids. We’re offering more dual-enrollment in our buildings, too.

When students are contemplating their future, we try to look at it from the perspective: What do you want to do? What can you afford to do? And, then, how can we help you achieve that goal?

I don’t ever tell a child “you’re never going to reach that goal.” If they have that goal, I’m gonna help you as much as I can to help you reach it. But, it begins with the diploma. If you don’t have that diploma in your hand, you’re gonna struggle; you’re gonna be kind of behind the eight-ball.

So, we are getting our kids to see that — getting their diploma — is the most important piece. And, then, what is the next step. And, you (the student) define what is the next step, and then let us help you get there.

What are some challenges regarding raising the graduation rate of students in Walker County?

We’ll get to 100% (graduation rate), but it’s difficult because there are so many things stacked against you (as a school).

For example, a student with special needs — they already count as a ‘drop-out’ in Georgia law.

Environmental factors outside of our control, is another example, such as a home life issue, which is outside of our control. We are supporting students in those situations as much as we can, providing them with the same level of opportunities and enhancements.

I convinced our folks to stop thinking about all the excuses and the reasons why we are not (reaching 100% graduation rates). We have them (students) for seven hours a day; what are we doing during that time period to get them to that point?

And, so, that mind shift is more of a growth mindset, to think about what we are doing in the time we have them; how we are impacting them. Instead of always thinking about “well, I don’t control that, and that is having an impact.”

And, it does have an impact. But we can’t think about it like that. We’ve got to take them and move them as far as we can based upon the time frame that we have them.

So, given these environmental factors (home issues) that impact students and learning, how many counselors are available at the schools to help such students overcome these challenges?

So, we have a counselor in every school. When you get to the middle school, we have two counselors, and when you get to the high school level, you have three or four, depending on the number of kids they serve.

The state dictates that you have to have one counselor for so many students. So we’ve tried to get close to that number.

What is that number?

Four hundred and fifty. You have to have one for every four hundred and fifty.

Would you say that is shortchanging the students?

It definitely is. But, now, the government did come back and has given us some dollars for our mental health profession to be at our high schools next year, which we’ve already been working with Georgia Hope, Lookout Mountain Community Board and Primary Health Care.

But these dollars will be for in-house help for the students, right?

Yes and our Georgia Hope folks are already in-house, because we are dealing with a lot more issues that students are dealing with that I didn’t deal with as a student. Are they weren’t as prevalent — or publicized with the media. And, so our kids come with a lot of different issues, and we have to deal with that, so having those folks who are trained.

Because, think about it, our guidance counselors are specifically trained in guiding kids on tracks to school, not so much on social and emotional issues, so we are having to expand our guidance counselors on their professional development, while also adding those folks who are trained that are in our buildings as well.

So since the governor has approved the hiring of these specialized individuals you will be able to add to your staff. Give me a number.

Oh, we are only talking about one at each high school.

So, two total?

Yes. We already have a Georgia Hope presence now. They’re in our office building there (at the two high schools). We have already had that in place. So, this will help by adding one more person as well.

And that will be funded by the governor?

It was.

That will not be part of the monies of what I assume is a $1.5 million shortage in the budget, according to a Chattanooga paper? Is that correct?

So there is really no shortage in the budget. What you’ve got is, we’re talking about a $1.5 million out of our fund reserve to help run the budget. So, right now you’re (the school system is) higher in expenditures than you are in revenue (more money going out compared to what is coming in). The difference (the shortage) is having to be pulled from our fund balance. And, we’ve been doing that a number of years because of the board and my commitment to lower class sizes.

The lower the class sizes, the more teachers you have to hire. So, as you hire more teachers, (you have to also pay state health benefits for them) and state health benefits has gone up. Teachers’ retirement system benefit costs have gone up, too, which the new teachers also receive, so our expenditures have gone up because of that. But, our revenue has not increased.

So let me make sure I am wrapping my mind around this correctly. The expenses continue to rise, at least for the past seven years (during your tenure)?

I’ll speak for my tenure; they have. But, they’ve been going up for 10 years.

So, the costs have been going up for 10 years, seven of which is on your watch?

Yes.

And the three prior years when they were rising, were they rising for the same reason that they’re going up now?

Yes. So, you take three years ago, TRS, the Teacher Retirement System, which is offered to all certificated employees — which, is one of the only benefits, in my opinion (I say one of the only), because the main benefit is the impact we have on kids — but, a benefit for teachers in the long run is TRS. It is one of the best retirement systems out there.

And, so, what happened was during the recession, when we were laying teachers off, you had fewer and fewer contributors to TRS. So, they had to keep that money for retirees coming in, so they came back to us. So, it went from, at one time, 9% to 12% to 16% to 20% and now it’s at 21%. That’s what we pay locally for every certificated employee.

State health benefits, when I started here, was running us around $283 per month for every certificated employee. Not the non-certificated employees, that was running us much less — it was less than $100 dollars per month for them. Now, it is $985 dollars per employee, per month, for every employee.

So, you can see that’s exponentially higher. Now, during all those increases, revenue dropped across the state because we were in a recession. So, that’s when we were having furlough days for our teachers, where we went from 2 to 3 to 5 to 8 (days off without pay for personnel).

So, instead of going up in taxes (like the millage rate increase-related tax), we were putting the burden of those higher expenses on the burdens of our teachers. And, that is how we were helping to balance our budget. We lowered the number of teachers that we had, so we were not paying as many teachers, and we had furlough days as well.

So how many teachers did you lose altogether as a result?

We had 52 that we did not replace my very first year, when I walked in the door. But, since I’ve been back (for the past eight years); we’ve put back into place that number. We’re back now to where we were (in total teachers working for the school system in Walker) that we were in 2012. We have a little more than that, actually. That’s why we didn’t replace 15 positions this year, because we were a little higher than before anyway.

What is our total faculty number?

We have 1,483 total employees for Walker County.

Do you know how many teachers we have?

I think its like, certificated — and, I’m gonna quote a number, but I’m gonna miss it because there is a QBE-funded number that we get funding for, and then there’s another number of teachers that we have. And that difference is for teachers we don’t get any funding for, and we fund all of them locally.

So, it’s a difference of about 93 total. So, it’s like 877 certificated.

One of the questions that our readers had posted pertained to a Chattanooga article done on your February meeting about the budget. Specifically, the title mentioned a budget reduction of $1.5 million. How are you reducing the budget by that amount, yet also needing to raise the millage (property tax) rate and, thus, property taxes?

The very first article that went out, the person that put that out, I specifically told them that this was only our second meeting. The first was in February.

That’s when we just introduced the whole budget timeline to my board. We are required to have a work session, a full day work session. The two hours that is set aside at the beginning is to just talk about budgets. So, we go over in February of where we are with the current budget. And, then, we start making projections on where we think we are going to end and what next year is going to look like.

Then, we start getting closer to getting the information from the tax commissioner, so we can truly put together a number. So, during that meeting (that the other news agency attended) that number was so tentative — because we threw in every possible thing that could happen and showed that number to the board. But, we tried to make sure everyone knew that this is very tentative, this is not going to be a true number.

But, the article went out from the Chattanooga paper showing that that fund reserve was down a million dollars. So, when you come back to the meeting when we really had truer numbers, there was a difference of $1.5 million. We felt like these were better numbers. So, that increased the fund budget up to the two million and eighty-eight thousand that we have showing now as the projected fund balance at the end of fiscal year 2020.

In other words, there is not a fund reserve for the school system of Walker County in the amount of $2,088,000 right now. It is projected by the school system and school board to be that amount (if expenses and revenue stay as predicted) by June 30, 2020.

So, to be clear, of this projected amount for the fund reserve account (the account the school system keeps in their version of an emergency savings account per se), none of the two million plus that should be there in June 2020 will be from the monies brought in from a millage rate increase? That money would be extra?

The proposed increase from the millage rate would then add more revenue, which would then bump that reserve up at the end of next year by a proposed million dollars. That’s what it would bring in additional revenue.

Excuse me, I am trying to wrap my head around all this, since I do have an accounting background, and here’s my question: What do you have as a fund reserve right now?

So, we’ve got one more month left in the fiscal year (as of the date of this interview, Monday, July 11). So, we are projecting it to be, so let me pull that out, I don’t want to misquote my numbers. I’m right in the middle of planning mode, so I’ve got it in a stack, somewhere, hold on, and I will get it.

So, what you’ve got here. Here’s revenue, so local, state and others, we are projecting right now that that’s going to be a little more than $89 million.

Closing balance? I asked about the fund reserve balance currently.

This is all for next year. This is all predicting what we are going to get next year in revenue. This is what we feel comfortable with right now. That’s without the millage increase.

During the Walker County Board of Education called session on Monday, July 15, at 10 a.m. Raines was asked again what the ending balance of the funding reserve account should be in a few weeks for this fiscal school year ending in 2019. It will be $6.1 million, he said.

According to Mr. Raines, the Georgia Department of Education recommends that fund balances do not exceed 15% of the annual expenditure budget. That means that if the annual expenditures for fiscal year 2019 were approximately $92 million — and they were according to the handout provided — then the maximum amount the state educational department would recommend the fund reserve not exceed for the 2019 school year would be approximately $14 million. The Walker County School System is well within those numbers.

Mr. Raines, I am all for education, and I understand the need for students to have the right ratio between student and teacher, and for students to have the resources they need. But, one question I know comes from the community is this:

This is really an impoverished community, and the school board is going to be asking them — elderly, disabled, and those property owners that do not even have children in the school system — to pay additional monies in property taxes to the tune of about one-and-a-half million dollars. How would you justify that: asking those who may not be getting any additional revenue and are on fixed incomes, yet they are going to be paying more in taxes when they can ill-afford to pay what they are paying now --and to a school system, that, by and large, already has a good operational budget now?

So, a couple of things as I think about it. So, you go back to 2005. So, this system, this county, since 2005 has had the same millage rate, for the most part.

It has stayed at 17.404 for five years, and it was at 17.505 until they took the rollback, so from 2005 to 2010 it stayed at 17.505. Then, it rolled back to 17.404; and, it stayed there for five years. Then, it rolled back three years consecutively. So, the board has maintained a phenomenal millage rate for that many years and the tax base was comfortable with it at 17.5 or 17.4 for years.

We took the rollback for three years, and we lost a considerable amount of additional revenue that we are seeing now; that we are seeing the gap, OK.

The other thing I think is that during the time that we held the millage rate and the county was OK with that, we increased the graduation rate by 20+ points. So, you’ve impacted your entire community by having a well-educated community.

So, when you talk about an impoverished community we’ve seen generational poverty cycles broken by graduates from families, which are going to have a positive impact on the community of Walker County.

Some of these kids are coming back and starting businesses and some are never leaving and staying to work in businesses that are already established. They’re better employees, they’re better educated, and they’re pursuing higher degrees. We are making this community better based on what we are providing as a workforce for the community.

I don’t doubt that and I don’t think that people in the community would doubt that, but here’s the argument that some have made: If you are able to increase the graduation rate by 20% based upon your current budget and your current millage rate, why increase it? In other words, you are getting success now, so you don’t need to increase the budget to get continued success.

So, the argument there would be that if there is not an increase in revenue at some point, then the only place to cut in the existing budget (to make it balanced) is in personnel. And when you start cutting personnel, you start eliminating people, programs and specific help for students.

How many of the teachers who teach for the Walker County school system, and would be impacted by any adversarial action like that, actually live in this county?

I don’t have an exact number, but I can get it. But, I would say that probably 85 to 90% of the teachers that work for Walker County live in Walker County.

We have 92 bus routes, right — well the state only funds 68 of them. So, when they say they are fully funding education at the state, that’s their 60% funding (paying the expense for 68 bus routes and the locals paying for the rest). The other 40% to fund all 92 is supposed to be funded by local dollars. That’s the way the statute is set up. That’s why the counties have a millage rate, to offset those costs.

As those expenses have gone up, QBE has not changed and the revenue stream has not changed, so you’ve got to figure out if you eliminate people will you get your expenditures back in check, or you come up with some new revenue stream.

It’s been a delicate balance for us, and I think if you look at the previous 10 year stretch when Walker County was paying a certain amount and getting a great product (higher graduation rates), all we are trying to do is go back to the same millage rate they were paying and give the same product — or a better one, because we are gonna push that graduation rate number over that last one.

I think our community is pleased with how we’ve been spending our money, but I think they are even more pleased with the product they have been getting.

Speaking of millage rates, you mentioned in the last board meeting about the budget that Walker County is the only county in the state which could tax up to a 30 millage rate if the school board wanted to do so. Right?

My understanding through our attorney is that we are the only county where we could tax up to the cap of 20, but we could go all the way up to 30 mils if we chose to. But, there’s no way that would ever happen. It’s good information for people to know, that this is still on the books of the government. That’s not anything we would ever consider doing. I think he said there may have been one other county, but we are the only one that is left that could do it.

Is there anything that you would like the citizens of Walker County to know that has not been covered in this question-and-answer session with you thus far?

Well, I would like for the citizens to know that it is very important to me to have their trust. And, I think I’ve proven that here, leading the school system. We’ve created, we’ve produced a much better product that is going to, ultimately, have a huge impact on this community as a whole.

And, what we’re trying to do with our budget is to ensure that we have the right people with the right credentials with the right students so that we can continue producing that well-prepared student as they come forward, because that will have a positive impact on their family and, ultimately, on our community as a whole.

So, I want them to know that for 10 years, or even longer, we’ve maintained a rate, and we’ve put together a product that has been getting better and better. And, we pulled back (on the millage rate in the past) because we were seeing financial distress from our county, so we felt it was necessary for us to roll that back (three years ago), but the unintended consequence from that was expenditures kept going up and revenues kept going down.

So, we’ve got to at least get back to where we were (with the millage rate), so we can offset that (the lower revenue) a little bit. The first year we rolled back we lost $548,000 of local revenue monies. That was a big discussion with us. We knew we would be losing a half-million dollars in revenue in order to roll back the millage rate for a distressed county.

We felt we were in good financial shape at that time and that it was the right thing to do. But, we kept having our benefits climb, so as our revenues were lower and our expenditures grew higher we had to think about it again, which brings us to now and the need to increase the millage rate for the first time in three years.

Jan Morris is assistant editor for the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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