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September 4, 2013

Spending on turf field questioned as Dalton school board talks tax

Members ‘leaning’ against increase this year, unsure about next

(Continued)

Fifty new teachers

The $1.35 million turf project began at about the same time the school system was hiring 50 new teachers to deal with an increasing student population. The number of students increased from approximately 6,330 in 2006 to more than 7,560 students this year, based on enrollment data provided by the school system.

The average salary for a teacher this year who has been in the system for 10 years is $51,714 a year. For entry-level teachers, the average salary is $32,817, while teachers who have been in the system for 20 years and have a doctorate degree make $74,107 annually. The salary information was provided by Perry.

Holloway said because students are the system’s “core business,” expenses are tied to enrollment. The more students, she said, the more teachers, more school supplies, more cafeteria workers and so on.

“Everything gets bigger when enrollment gets bigger,” she said. “It impacts everything.”

So why did board members approve a new practice field and track when they knew they had to hire 50 new teachers? After all, $1.35 million could perhaps have paid for a large number of the 50 new teachers.

With 640 instructional employees (teachers, parapros and literacy coaches, among others) to 7,560 students, Perry said each Dalton teacher has about 14 students per classroom. The state waived classroom limits in 2011 to help local school districts deal with lean budgets. Back when there was a limit in effect, classrooms were kept to about 20 students for elementary and middle schools and about 30 for high school classrooms.

“It’s a numbers game,” Crutchfield said. “We have hired a certain number of teachers to meet how many kids we have in class. We know you get better instruction with fewer kids in class.”

“In the 2007-2008 school year, the district had its highest per student expenditures of over $13,000,” Perry said. “In 2009 and 2010 per student expenditures dropped to $12,000. Then for the last three years we have been at our lowest level of $10,000 per student.”

The fact that per student spending is decreasing is important to note, Perry said, when residents question how school officials use taxpayers’ money.

As the cost per student has dropped, average salaries have increased and are expected to continue that way, Perry said. School board members have long said they want to restore cuts to teacher salaries incurred during the housing market crisis of 2008. Teachers are still paid approximately $4,000 less on average than they were then, according to information provided by the school system.

“Our challenge isn’t so much hiring new teachers,” Crutchfield said. “But it’s really about taking care of the teachers we have. That’s a challenge. We want to be able to keep the best teachers, to attract and retain them.

“We have to keep them in our system. We want to be competitive. We know it’s not all pay. It’s about the culture and kids. But compensation is important for all of us.”

Besides, Crutchfield said, saving $1.35 million this year would only pay for one year’s worth of the new teachers’ salaries.

Williams said even though he hopes salaries continue to improve, he is “not ready to raise the (tax) rate.”

“And I really haven’t seen anything that would change my mind,” he added.

Although several other board members say they are “leaning” against an increase this year, Crutchfield said “that doesn’t mean they can’t ever change” their minds. Orr said a good case can be made for a tax increase.

“We continue to grow 200 to 300 students per year and eventually the time will come when an increase is needed,” Orr, who is also leaving the board at the end of the year, said. “I certainly hope the board, moving forward, will gradually make those increases as opposed to waiting until they’re in dire straits and have to make a hefty increase.”

“Obviously, all sources of revenue need to be considered when building a budget,” Fromm said. “The recently approved budget projects greater expenses than the projected revenues will cover. The fund balance will cover the deficit (this year).”

The budget approved for the fiscal year that began July 1 by Crutchfield, Orr and Williams — Fromm and board member Tulley Johnson were absent from the meeting — assumed $59.68 million in revenues and $64.2 million in expenses. The fund balance — or what several school officials refer to as a “rainy day” fund — is covering the $4.52 million shortfall by taking it from some $10.6 million that has been set aside. Perry and several board members said the fund is likely to be further depleted as health benefits and insurance costs continue to go up for school employees.

“Our budget for this year consumes a good portion of that balance, as does the projected budget for next year,” Orr said. “Obviously, we can’t continue on that path and survive.”

So a tax increase is likely going to happen at some point, he said.

But when? And does the money spent for the turf field make a difference on how soon?

“At some point in time, obviously, we have to look at this,” Crutchfield said. “Are we going to do it next year? In two years? In three years? We can’t say for sure with a lot of confidence.”

“Look, we always have to evaluate the tax rate,” he said. “We do that constantly. But all board members agree it (an increase) is a last resort.”

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