About halfway through her hour-long presentation to the Oconee County Board of Education, Oconee County Schools Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow paused and asked a question.
Harlow had just reviewed the current fiscal year budget and presented a slide showing the calendar for the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget.
“Are there any goals that the Board would like to consider for the FY 24 Budget?” Harlow asked.
Board Chair Kim Argo had one.
“I would like, if possible, to see if we can do the budget without having to raise taxes,” she said.
Argo didn’t get strong statements of support from her fellow Board Members, and she got a strong counter from Superintendent Jason Branch, who said the school system needs “healthy reserves” for new construction.
Argo then said she wanted to increase salaries for system employees.
That got support from other Board members and from Branch.
Branch And Budgets
Branch gave an early signal of his view of financial needs of Oconee County Schools even before Harlow posed her question about the Fiscal Year 2024 budget at the day-long retreat on Jan. 18 at the Georgia Club in Barrow County.
|Argo (Back To Camera), Branch|
Harlow’s presentation was the last of the day.
“The other thing to point out,” Branch said as Harlow was reviewing the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget, “is as we continue to reduce the millage rate--I applaud the Board’s efforts in that area--I tell groups who always start with two things: Can we pay our employees more and continue to reduce the tax burden to the community?”
“You’re at 15.5,” he said, referring to the millage rate adopted by the Board in August. “And I think the state recommendation is 15 as a base for systems as it relates to equalization and other pieces that the state has.”
“It is just something to bear in mind as we continue to look at those numbers and how we make sure the students have what they need,” he said.
Branch had proposed in preparation of the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget that the millage rate be reduced from 16.5 to 16.25, but the Board, following a strong push back from citizens, decided to drop the rate to 15.5.
The drop to 15.5 did not offset the inflationary growth in the county Tax Digest, and the state defined the 15.5 millage rate as a 4.7 percent tax increase.
The 16.25 millage rate would have been a 9.8 percent tax increase.
Branch Responds To Argo
When Argo asked for a freeze on taxes, Branch’s reaction was clear.
Board Member Burgess also had asked Harlow if she had enough money to pay for all of the things discussed in the retreat and said he wanted “to make sure that we have soundly...dealt with our debt.”
“This is just the beginning, obviously,” Branch said about budget planning. “We’re very--we’re just getting the process started.” Budget requests are now underway for a May 1 presentation of a Tentative Budget to the Board.
“You guys can continue to think about those goals and let us know as you go,” he said. “The other thing I would like to continue to keep the Board in mind, as we go through the strategic plan, it will be important that we have healthy reserves to be able to be responsive to whatever the community tells us with regard to additions and/or a construction of another school building.”
A strong reserve “allows us to be as flexible and respond as quickly as you have in the past with Dove Creek Elementary and Dove Creek Middle and allows you to be equally responsive even though it will take some years to do because you will put yourself in that position,” Branch said. “So keep an eye as we continue to set goals.”
Earlier in the day, Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff said the Board needed to plan for either classroom additions at the system’s two high schools or construction of a new high school.
LeDuff and Branch said they would hold a community meeting to get input on which of those options was preferred.
Branch Responds To Argo
After asking her question of the Board about its preferences, Harlow outlined what already is in the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget.
|Board Members Michael Ransom, Burgess|
Included is $1.4 million for 15 new teachers “for student growth,” $1.9 million for pay increases for certified employees, $1.8 million for school staffing costs of the new Dove Creek Middle School now under construction, plus employer health insurance contribution increases and employee step increases.
Harlow said the Dove Creek Middle School staffing costs will include a principal, two assistant principals, teachers, counselors, bus drivers, and others.
“If we just do a continuation budget, going forward, and add all these numbers up,” Branch said, “to deliver on things that we are just doing in terms of staff.”
“So health insurance is going up for the next budget cycle, the opening of Dove Creek, which we’ve already talked about, the 15 teachers for growth that we want to do, and the employee staff increases are necessary at the state level,” he said.
“Really the only thing in question, in our minds at this point, although some things have to go through the process, would be that $2,000 pay increase, where that lands or does not land, overall in the budget,” he said, referring to the state increase and what part of the county has to cover.
“So you can see if you take our current budget and you add those numbers to it you are going to have a large budget just based on those,” Branch said.
Much Of Presentation Redundant
Much of the first part of Harlow’s presentation was a rehash of materials presented to the Board during budget sessions last year.
|Harlow's Chart Reformatted|
(Click To Enlarge)
Ryan Hammock joined the Board only in January, so, for him at least, this would have been an introduction to some of the documents.
One item that did generate some discussion was a chart Harlow presented that showed that Oconee County Schools ranked fifth from the bottom among 13 schools in the Northeast Georgia RESA (Regional Educational Services Agency) in terms of expenditure per student for Instruction.
The system also ranked low in spending for Instructional Support, General Administration, School Administration, Transportation, and Maintenance and Operations.
Harlow and Branch presented these as bragging points, with Branch saying the numbers were “an improvement” over last year.
“I’m trying to get my head around being that low,” Board Member Burgess said. “The general rule is, you spend for quality, you spend for results, as long as the two are on track with each other, you are going in the right direction.”
“It is not about how much money you spend, it is about how you spend your money,” Branch said. “We make sure we spend the money in the areas that we need to do get the results that we do.”
“I’d like to see the details of that,” Burgess said of Harlow’s rankings.
Harlow presented the Board with another chart showing the Fund Balance at the end of Fiscal Years 2020, 2021, and 2022 and the projected Fund Balance for this year.
The figure was $25.7 million in FY 2020, $33.1 million in FY 2021, $35.2 million in Fiscal Year 2022, and is projected to be $35.1 million on June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
For the last three years, the Fund Balance has been nearly 39 percent of the next year’s General Fund expenditures, according to the information Harlow provided.
Harlow presented a chart saying a fund balance is an “indicator of overall financial health of system, covers expenses during low income periods, serves as emergency savings account, used by ratings agencies to determine interest rates.”
According to policy adopted by the Oconee County Board of Education in 2015, the Unassigned Fund Balance is recommended to be a minimum of 10 percent, but not more than 15 percent, of the next year’s General Fund expenditures.
Caitlin Farmer, a reporter for The Oconee Enterprise, attended the School Board retreat on Jan. 18 at the Georgia Club and wrote two stories covering the wide range of topics presented to the Board that day.
Farmer’s stories appeared at the bottom of the front page of the Jan. 26 edition of the Enterprise and at the top of page A3 of that edition of the paper.
The Board of Education did not record the meeting.
Farmer and I had agreed in advance that it would be helpful to the public and to me to have a video recording of the meeting.
I lent her a camera and tripod, and she placed it at the rear of the room, as allowed by Oconee County Schools.
The audio quality of the recording is poor because of the distance from the speaker, who was at a podium in the front of the room, and because of room noise.
In the afternoon, a tremendous amount of banging and other noise was coming from an adjoining room.
The video below is of the afternoon session.
I have embedded the morning video is an earlier post on the decision by Oconee County Schools to increase its charges to the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department for school sports facilities and an a subsequent post on construction plans for the schools.
Harlow began speaking at 1:07:21 in the video.
She asked the Board for its input on the Fiscal Year 2024 budget at 1:39:29 in the video.