Tax rate increase likely
A tax rate increase is something board members said they’re trying to “minimize” this year, but one is likely.
The rate currently sits at 7.845 mills. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed value. For a $100,000 home at a 7.845 rate without any exemptions, the homeowner would pay $784.50 annually to the school system. Roughly 70 percent of school system tax revenue comes from businesses, school officials said.
After spending several hours Tuesday considering the budget with a variety of hypothetical cuts, board members were only able to reduce the shortfall to roughly $2.1 million, leaving a reserve fund of about $6 million. That’s still not enough to carry the school system through the tight summer months, Perry said.
“We’re doing everything we can on the other side (with cuts),” Board Chairman Danny Crutchfield said. “Our objective is to provide the best education and sometimes you can’t do that with the lowest tax rate in America. It requires investment.”
Only until board members looked at a .755 millage increase, bringing the total rate to 8.6 mills, was the budget in the black (including the cuts to salary and bus services).
“That rate is basically when you end up heading in the direction you want to head,” board member Steve Laird said.
That doesn’t mean the tax rate, if any, will be that high, Crutchfield said, emphasizing no decision has been made.
Board members typically adopt a tentative rate in May and vote on a final rate in October after information about the health of the tax digest is released by the Whitfield County tax commissioner in August.
Before the board can adopt an increase in the property tax rate, state law requires three public meetings.
Cutting bus services or adding a bus fee?
Much of Tuesday’s meeting was dedicated to finding savings in bus transportation, which currently costs roughly $2.4 million annually. School officials said ending bus services to Dalton High School and Morris Innovative High School would save $192,000, while cutting services to all elementary schools would save $204,000.
Hawkins said he’s “concerned” those cuts would mean elementary students would be put in danger if they walk to school, while high school students “just might not come to school.” The school system has already stopped bus service to elementary students in what officials call “parent responsibility zones,” streets within walking distance of elementary schools.
Board members discussed adding a service fee, without stating a specific cost, that parents would have to pay for their students to have bus access, but Hawkins said he is concerned some students wouldn’t pay. Roughly 70 percent of the students in the school system come from an impoverished area, school officials said.
Jennifer Phinney, director of school support, said if board members move to cut transportation or require a fee that some students might not be able to afford, the school system should be prepared to “enforce truancy laws.”
Georgia has a compulsory attendance law that could result in monetary fines to parents, juvenile jail for students or intervention from the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) if students miss weeks of schooling.
“Those 14- and 15-year-olds who don’t pay, you’re going to have to be willing to employ a social worker and do the five-day letter and the 10-day letter and take someone to court,” Phinney said. “I’m not opposed to that, philosophically. Parents should get their kids to school. But I think you’re going to have to be willing to do that.”