Gaining about $4 million of additional state funding allows Walker County Schools to increase staffing and improve the ratio of students-per-teacher for the 2017-18 school.
About $3.1 million comes from an Education Equalization Funding grant, money allocated to poorer counties such as Walker, that aims to close the gap between high and low property wealth school systems.
Phyllis Copeland, director of financial services for the system, said the biggest benefit to the system is it allows hiring 29 new teachers and a guidance counselor.
Not only will the grant money support new hires, its allows the system to increase pay for all certified and non-certified teachers by about 2 percent in this year's budget.
Some money will be used to increase the employer contribution — by about the same amount — to the system's retirement plan
Funding to help offset those raises and boosts to retirement benefits is based on the state's Quality Basic Education formula.
QBE funding is another funding source used to equalize education spending statewide. Like the EEF grant, this revenue is based on a county dedicating the equivalent of five mills (property tax collections) to educate students: a wealthy county is expected to contribute more to school funding while a poorer county will receive more state funding.
Superintendent Damon Raines said that Walker schools would face serious financial challenges without equalization grants and state shared revenue,
"If both of these went away, that would be a $3.5 million net loss," he said. "Other than a millage rate increase, other options would be going back to furlough days, staff reductions (yielding larger class sizes), cuts to programs and services."
The county's schools are within state-mandated student/teacher ratios except for three classes. More money means more teachers, particularly in Early Intervention (EIP), Gifted and Remedial programs, where those ratios are critical.
"These categories earn state funds at a higher rate than regular ed students but class size must be lower than normal to get the extra funding," Copeland said. "If the class size exceeds the maximum for these programs, the students would be funded at the regular grade level category funding amount."
While total spending will increase about 7 percent compared to last year, officials said the amount of local taxpayer funding is actually about $400,000 less. That is because slightly more than $4 million in debt — money borrowed in 2002 for remodeling projects at several schools — was paid off last winter.
Overall, the local school system closely follows the national norm of spending slightly more than 60 percent of operating budgets on instruction. Walker County Schools' budgets for this and the past three years are available at walkerschools.org.
Though its budget has grown, the taxpayers' burden to support public schools has changed only slightly.
"The system has not increased the millage rate in over 10 years," Raines said. " Since 2010, these millage rate reductions have cost the school system approximately $3 million."
A few positions are in the process of being filled, but most of the new hires will to report for work on Aug. 3, the first day of school.
And about the new school year, the superintendent said this:
“The Walker County School System is excited about the amazing things happening across our District. We continue to expand our STEM and STEAM-related choices and are focusing on how to more effectively engage our students in every classroom. Our Mission is to “Ensure All Students Graduate: Ready for College, Ready for Work, Ready for Life” and we continue to work tirelessly to assure we have a plan for every student placed under our care to accomplish this mission. We are ready for another amazing year."
Walker County's 2016 property tax rate was 24.469 mills for its unincorporated areas. Of that amount, 7.838 mills is collected for the county's general fund while more than double that amount — 16.631 mills — is collected to run Walker's school system. The school's portion of Walker County tax collections has remained stable for several years.
In comparison, Walker County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker has done research that show Murray and Catoosa counties being the only ones within a 10-county area that have lower overall rates. Catoosa has rate of 7.295 mills as the county government portion and a total millage of 25.987, meaning their total tax rate is slightly higher than Walker's.
In nearby Floyd and Whitfield counties, the combined property tax rate exceeds 30 mills.