Education

February 18, 2014

Tax increase likely

Dalton school board considering ‘all options’

Dalton Public Schools has been “cut down to the bone” after years of financial struggles, says Superintendent Jim Hawkins.

That stark reality has members of the Board of Education spending hours tooling and retooling the school system’s budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins on July 1, in hopes of staving off painful cuts or tax increases. But a combination of both is likely if there’s not an unexpected boost in the local economy, officials said.

Options being discussed by board members include an across-the-board cut in salaries for all school staff of no more than 1 percent, ending some parts of bus transportation or requiring a fee to ride the bus.

Other options include a hiring chill that could have Hawkins personally overseeing whether to fill vacant spots after staff members retire or resign and a seemingly inevitable property tax rate increase.

Board members met to discuss the budget at a called meeting on Tuesday at Dalton Middle School. They are considering a resolution that they won’t discuss layoffs of staff and reductions to the school calendar, which sits at 182 days for students and 220 days for most staff members. Another resolution under consideration is to keep the reserve fund, which is currently $8 million, at no less than $7 million.

Board members are set to approve those resolutions at their Monday, March 10, meeting at City Hall at 6:30 p.m.

That reserve fund is a crucial component to the discussion, school officials said. That money is what carries the school system through the summer months when money gets tight and is later replenished in December when property tax bills are paid. The fund pays for salaries and daily operations during the summer, said Theresa Perry, the school system’s chief financial officer.

A budget forecast provided by the school system expects $61.9 million in revenue and $69.5 million in expenses for fiscal year 2015, leaving a $7.6 million shortfall. If there’s no change to the budget, the backup fund of $8 million would be reduced to approximately $500,000, which wouldn’t be enough to pay staff in the summer, Perry said.

Board members facing a similar crunch last year opted to use $4.5 million from the reserve fund, then roughly $12.5 million, instead of making deep cuts or raising taxes. That doesn’t appear to be an option this year.

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