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Tough situation for Long County Board of Education
Jeff Whitten may 2017

Benjamin Franklin wrote “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

This is about latter. It’s prompted by news that the Long County school board is facing a problem not of its own making.

The board either raises its millage rate to a certain level or the school system it governs stands to lose $4 million or more in state equalization grant funding, money meant to help poorer districts keep within shouting distance of their more affluent peers.

While it seems likely, or at least strongly possible, that the board will vote to raise the millage rate to where it needs to be to ensure it keeps that $4 million, that move is bound to be unpopular among some. In fact, there’s already some fussing about it on social media.

I can understand the sentiment. I don’t like paying taxes either.

But the alternative in Long County’s case isn’t good, either. In fact, it’s bad.

Long County Schools currently operates on a budget of about $24 million. Most of its spending (around 80 percent, perhaps) is in the form of salaries for teachers and others. Take $4 million off the top and you’re cutting a sizeable chunk of change from the money the district has to pay teachers and bus drivers and coaches and lunchroom workers and everybody else who works for the district.

That means pay cuts or, worse, staff cuts, and this at a time when the district is struggling as it is to keep up with the county’s rapid residential growth. But it has no choice. It can’t turn kids away.

This is a system that has grown by about 1,300 students over the past 10 years in a county with plenty of rooftops, but little else to tax. There’s practically no industrial or commercial tax base, and that’s putting additional pressure on local governments to find revenue to provide services ranging from public works to public safety, and including schools.

That Long County’s school system does as well as it does is a testament to those who work in it, from the superintendent on down. It’s also a credit to the school board, which is comprised of elected officials who don’t like raising taxes, or being forced to.

But in this case, that’s what’s on the table. It’s right there in black and white, in the official code of Georgia, 20-2-165, and it says that for school systems to continue receiving equalization money they will have to have a millage rate of 13.5 mills by July 1. Now, the county’s at 13.483 mills, one of the lowest rates in the state. By July 1, 2019, that rate needs to be at 14 mills. That’s an estimated $41 more on a $100,000 home’s annual tax bill, according to school estimates. That’s an easy way to figure out how much it’ll cost you.

So why not just raise the millage rate to 13.5 mills now and go to 14 mills later?

That’s one thought, but it doesn’t make much sense to do it all over again in about 12 months.

And why the 14.5 the school board is considering? Why not 14 mills? The answer there is if the digest grows,the BoE will have to have a rollback in millage rate, and that rollback could put the school board under the 14 mill threshold.

So that extra .5 percent will give the school system the wiggle room it needs.

Sure, the district could do without the estimated $300,000 it will raise by raising the millage rate. It just can’t do without that $4 million.
The board already has plans for the money — they need new buses, each of which weighs in at about $109,000. They also want to bolster the free and reduced lunch program, which more than 70 percent of Long County’s students are eligible for.

You could say those who’ve resisted commercial growth in Long County, thereby putting much of the burden for taxes on homeowners, are partly to blame for where the school board finds itself now.

State legislators are merely trying to make sure local districts are paying their fair share. The ideal split as far as the state government is concerned is one where the state covers 60 percent of the cost of educating kids, and locals come up with 40 percent.
In Long County, local taxes cover less than half that 40 percent. Right now it’s at 17 percent. That’s a bargain, right?

The way the state looks at it, it’s been a steal.

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