The Walker County school board held its first public hearing in the legal process required to approve its proposed 2019-20 budget.
The Tuesday, July 9, meeting at the county’s Advancing Education Center at 925 Osburn Road in Chickamauga was the site of the first of the two required hearings.
A notice informing the public that they could attend and speak out about any concerns they had regarding the proposed budget resulted in an attendance of only three in the audience at the July 9 meeting.
During the meeting, School Superintendent Damon Raines was joined by members of the Board of Education, which include Bobby McNabb, Dale Wilson, Phyllis Hunter, Karen Stoker, and Mike Carruth, who was in attendance via phone.
“This is a budget work session,” Karen Stoker informed the audience of three.
Raines added that this first public hearing on the proposed 2019-20 budget was preceded by three work sessions by the board, so they had already done a lot of work on it but now had to give the public the opportunity to oppose or make recommendations for changes.
“We are required by law to have two public hearings (before a budget can be approved),” Raines said.
Following his opening remarks, the school’s superintendent also explained the budgeting process the school currently employs, to those in the audience that might be unaware.
“When we start looking at building a budget, we typically try to balance our projected revenues and expenditures,” Raines said.
“We have to wait until this time of year to get the county’s reassessment of property and the values, so that we can see what that amounts going to be on our local level.”
Property taxation and millage rate
Property values will figure in importantly on this year’s budget for the school system given that the school board has tentatively adopted a millage (property tax) rate that will require an increase in property taxes of 4.84 percent in order to fund the board’s spending objectives.
Those objectives, reflected in a PowerPoint presentation by Raines, include a graph that depicts approximately 90 percent of funding will go to salaries (including raises not covered by state funding) and approximately 10 percent of funding will cover operational costs to run the school system.
Raines also explained that “the board kind of has a way to look at federal dollars and state dollars and figure out what exactly is going to be coming to us (from these two funding sources).”
Therefore, according to Raines, the board is aware early on in the year of any federal or state decreases in funding that they will not receive for the upcoming 2019-20 budget period; and, thus, the need to explore other means of making up that shortfall.
One public member in attendance asked about the ability to seek grants rather than put the burden of further taxation on those in the community who can ill afford greater property taxation, such as the elderly or disabled.
The superintendent assured her that he and the school board had also considered grant funding as well, but the grants that were most beneficial were also the most restricting in how they could be used, figuratively tying the hands of the school in ways that were too restrictive.
The audience member suggested grants that might not be as lucrative but would still be worthy of consideration, to which Raines said the board was always open to pursuing in the future.
Budget shortfall solution
As a result of the board’s limited ability to find funding for the shortfall between federal and state funding — such as the shortfall of funding the school will experience because the state’s governor has approved a pay raise for some faculty and staff, but will not cover all of the raise expenses the school will incur for all personnel, the board has turned to local taxation as a solution.
“They (the local property tax authorities) typically get that to us starting in May,” Raines said, referring to the county’s annual reassessment of property and value.
This annual reassessment can be used to evaluate if a community can be a source of additional funding to support the school system through a millage rate increase.
Millage rates and school funding
Millage rates are used to determine property taxes on homes in a given community. Millage rates can be raised to help increase local funding for the local school system.
For example, a home valued at $100,000 and in a county that has a millage rate of 30 percent — which, superintendent Raines said is how high Walker County could raise the millage rate, legally — would result in a homeowner being taxed $30 for every $1,000 of assessed value of his property, which is assessed at 40% of its market value.
In Walker County, specifically, that is not the millage rate currently being sought, even though the school system’s superintendent said it could go as high as 30 percent.
Additionally, Raines said the initial May numbers provided by the county’s tax assessment department is then updated later with more concrete numbers.
“The update is in June, so we try to balance these out.”
The initial information provided by the county tax assessor’s office gives the school system a general idea of what type of local funding they could ask for in a millage rate increase, with the final June number providing them a more definitive idea of what would be feasible based upon the values of the property in the local area — and how much it has gained in value.
The outspoken individual who attended the first public hearing July 9 expressed a position that others in the community have shared on social media posts on news websites:
Just because a property value is going up does not mean the homeowner’s income is being raised to be able to afford an increase in property taxation to support a growing school board budget — so someone else can get a raise.
Next and final school budget hearing
The second public hearing scheduled for discussion about the tentative school budget will be held on Monday, July 15, at the Walker County Department of Education at 201 S. Duke Street in LaFayette.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and is open to the public.
Everyone interested in expressing their position on the issue at hand is encouraged to attend, according to Raines, who says he welcomes the opportunity to inform the public on this transparent process.