The second of three public hearings on a proposed millage rate increase by the Long County Board of Education will be held 6 p.m. Monday at the Long County High School cafeteria.
A third and final hearing is set for 2 p.m. Thursday at the BOE board room, with a called hearing to vote on the issue at 3 p.m.
Only two residents attended the first hearing the Long County Board of Education held Thursday to discuss raising the current 13.483 millage rate to 14.50, an increase of 1.017 mills.
The school board voted 3-2 during a called meeting last month to rescind rolling back the millage rate and instead voted to consider raising it.
The reversal was prompted by a new state law that would cause the system to become ineligible for equalization grant monies and lose more than $4 million in funds if the mil rate is rolled back.
Georgia Law requires a qualified school system to have a 13.5 millage rate (or equivalent) by July 1, 2018 and at least 14 mills by July 1, 2019 to be eligible for equalization grant funds. Equalization grants are, “an additional aid provided to school systems intended to narrow the gap between systems in terms of property tax wealth per pupil,” according to school officials. These grants are based on the wealth gap between systems across Georgia.
If the board approves the millage rate increase, the impact on taxpayers would be $41 per year on a $100,000 property, school officials estimated.
School officials commented that local property tax revenue has “leveled off” in the past several years, but student enrollment has climbed, which necessitates hiring more employees. Enrollment stood at 2,190 in 2006 and has risen to an estimated 3,690 this school year. The system employed 295 faculty and staff 11 years ago, and currently employs 452 people.
Another major challenge is transportation, they said, stating that 65 percent of Long County students ride school buses on 40 regular bus routes.
Long County School Superintendent Dr. Robert Waters remarked the system should be buying replacement buses each year.
Twenty-seven of Long County buses are more than 10 years old, and four buses on regular routes are more than 20 years old, according to school administrators. The recommended life cycle of a bus is 10 years, school officials said.
Waters said the $312,578 gain in tax revenue generated by the proposed mil increase would help pay for three new buses at an estimated cost of $330,000.
Board Member Dr. Carolyn Williamson, who voted in opposition to the mil increase, asked if any additional cuts could be made to the budget by eliminating “wants not needs.” Williamson stated she would prefer to “ease into” increasing the millage and stay at the lowest rate possible to retain the system’s equalization grant funds and not further burden taxpayers. Board Member Linda DeLoach, who also opposed the proposed mil rate increase, agreed. BOE Vice Chair Julie Dawson was also present for the hearing.
Williamson suggested the system consider buying two replacement buses instead of three. Waters replied if the system goes to the lowest mil increase available to meet the new state law, then the district could not afford to purchase any replacement buses. Williamson responded that the district should then find something else to cut from the budget.
Waters stressed that system administrators are fiscally conservative and weigh the system’s financial needs carefully each year when drafting a budget. He commented the system has been “digging out of a hole for the past 10 years.”