February 22, 2014

Dalton school board members don’t get it

Last year, the Dalton Board of Education spent $1.35 million on a new artificial turf practice field and track at Dalton High School.

This year, board members say they will likely raise property tax rates.

A budget forecast provided by the school system calls for $61.9 million in revenue and $69.5 million in expenses for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1.

That would leave the school system with a $7.6 million shortfall, reducing its fund balance to roughly $500,000, down from $8 million.

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 a lot of money, but it’s still not enough to pay the system’s bills during the summer months when money is tight. Local taxpayers get their property tax bills in December, which is when school officials fill up their tank to get through the rest of the year and replenish the money they took out of their reserve fund.

Only after board members looked at a .755 millage increase, bringing the total rate to 8.6 mills, was the budget in the black (still including hypothetical cuts, including cuts to salary and bus services).

Now, back to that money spent last year on the practice field and track. Officials say even if they hadn’t spent that money, they’d still be facing a shortfall and still possibly an increase in taxes.

That may well be true, but it also shows board members don’t get it.

Dalton residents don’t mind paying money to maintain a quality school system. People aren’t automatically opposed to paying their taxes. But they get very irritated when they feel their money is being wasted on something as exorbitant as an artificial turf practice field, which isn’t needed in the minds of many taxpayers.

Many are also questioning the millions of dollars invested at Morris Innovative High School over the past five years, a school with fewer students now than when it opened its doors. It has undergone constant curriculum changes and hasn’t had the best test scores, leading many to wonder if it’s been a good return on investment.

If the board of education hadn’t put so much into these projects, would we be even looking at a tax increase?

The board is facing a budget deficit that stems from a bad economy and cuts from state funding. It also might be facing a growing trust gap with the people it relies on to pay its bills, many of whom feel like they are being taken advantage of.

Until the board demonstrates it can spend money more efficiently, any talk of tax increases will arouse a great deal of resentment.

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