Wednesday, May 08, 2024

Oconee County School Board Gets Tentative Fiscal Year 2025 Budget With $8.9 Million Increase In Spending

***Millage Rate Remains Unchanged***

Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch is asking the Board of Education to adopt a tentative Fiscal Year 2025 budget on Monday that increases spending by $8.9 million over the current fiscal year.

Much of that increased spending results from dictates from the state and is covered by increased state revenue, the bulk of it for teacher pay raises.

The budget is based on retaining the current millage rate of 15.0. Revenue from property and ad valorem taxes is projected to increase by $5.1 million because of projected growth in the tax digest.

The budget includes five areas of new spending: salary improvements, health insurance, Teacher Retirement System increases, new personnel, and curriculum adoption.

Even with the increased spending, revenue is projected to exceed spending by $1.7 million, with that amount to be added to the Fund Balance, projected to reach $40 million in June 30 of this year.

The budget sets $14.8 million of that Fund Balance aside for debt payments to cover the massive construction projects nearing completion in the school system and just less than $6 million to cover ongoing assigned projects.

Katie Childers, Director of Finance for Oconee County Schools, presented the tentative Fiscal Year 2025 Budget to the Board of Education at its work session on Monday.

Budget hearings are scheduled tentatively for May 22 and June 3, Childers said, with adoption of a final budget on June 10.

Budget Schedule

Childers began her presentation to the Board on Monday (May 6) by stating that the budget is tentative and that the millage rate of 15.0 used to create the tentative budget will not be set until early August.

Screen Shot  From Video While Childers Spoke
Childers Not Pictured

The Board is scheduled to adopt a tentative budget on Monday (May 13), hold the two required public hearings on May 22 and June 3, and adopt a final budget on June 10.

Both of those budgets–tentative and final--will be based on an estimated 10.7 percent growth in the county’s tax digest, or the value of the property in the county. The projected figure is $3.614 billion.

The actual figure will not be available from Tax Commission Jennifer Riddle until the middle of July, Childers said.

If the Digest grows the projected amount, and the Board retains the 15 millage rate that it is using for budgeting purposes, rather than scale back the millage rate to offset inflationary growth in the Tax Digest, the state almost certainly will define the 15 mills as a tax increase.

The Board then will be required to hold tax increase hearings before adopting the millage rate at its Aug. 5 meeting.

“In July we will publish the five-year Tax Digest and hold any legally required public hearings on the millage rate,” Childers told the Board. The dates for those hearings have not been set, she said.

Continuation Budget

Childers said that the beginning point for the budget presented to the Board was the “continuation budget expenditures” she had presented at a called Board meeting on April 15 to discuss the budget outline. That expenditure figure is $105.2 million.

“The continuation expenditures only represented expenditures if we were to continue from FY 24 with no changes,” she said. “They do not account for any staff or operational increases.”

She said she had identified the five areas for new spending at that meeting, and the $114.9 million in the proposed tentative spending budget reflects an increase of $9.7 million in new spending in those five areas.

That new spending consists of $5.5 million in salary improvements, $2.2 million in health insurance employer contributions, $0.5 million in Teacher Retirement employer contributions, $1.1 million for new positions, and $0.3 million for new curriculum.

Salary Improvements

The Salary Improvements consists of a 4 percent pay raise for all employees, for a total cost of $3.2 million.

Fund Balance 2024

Within this $3.2 million is $2.5 million for certified staff and $0.7 million for the classified staff.

Childers said that approximately $1.7 million of the $2.5 million certified staff increase will be funded by the state as part of Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed–and legislative approved–$2,500 salary increase for all certified employees.

The remaining $0.8 million is what Board Member Tim Burgess called an “enchanced” or “improvement” or “increased level of compensation of what the state's proposed.”

Childers said it would cover employees in Oconee County Schools that are not covered by the state funding.

According to Childers, Oconee County Schools has offered salary increases each year going back to 2020.

These include a $3,000 increase for certified employees in 2020, a $1,000 one-time payment for all employees in 2021, a $3,250 one-time payment for all employees in 2022, a $2,000 salary increase for certified employee in 2023, and a 5 percent salary increase for all employees last year.

Additional Steps

The budget also proposes to spend $2.2 million to add steps to all certified and classified salary scales.

Those scales currently end at step or year 21, and the proposal is to extend the steps up through 30.

“Extending our salary scales will recognize and value our most experienced teachers and staff,” Childers said.

The cost for additional steps for the system’s 157 certified employees will be $1.5 million in the first year and for the 93 classified staff $780,000 in the first year, she said.

“I think this is a nice incentive,” Board Chair Kim Argo said, “and it's a very nice way to tell our teachers, our veterans ,we appreciate you.”

Superintendent Jason Branch said the state steps stop at 21 and “this is an entirely local level recommendation.” He added that other local schools already have implemented additional steps and “you are seeing this more and more throughout the state.”

The tentative budget also adds a custodian supplement of $1,000 for a cost of $47,367.

This is a one-time allocation by the state.

Health And Retirement Contributions

The $2.2 million in State Health Insurance contributions consists of $1.2 million for certified employees and just less than $1 million for classified employees.

The Teacher Retirement System increase is from 19.98 percent at present to 20.78 percent in the upcoming fiscal year.

These increases are mandated by the state but funded by Oconee County Schools, Childers said.

“We don’t have a choice?” Argo asked Childers.

Childers confirmed that answer.

New Personnel, Curricular Costs

The tentative budget spending of $1.1 million for new personnel covers 19 new positions.

New Personnel

Included are a regular education teacher, three special education teachers, three special education para professionals, seven elementary clerks moving from part time to full time, and one instructional support specialist.

Also included is one custodian for the Instructional Support Center now under construction, one human resources clerk, and one business services clerk.

Board Member Burgess offered “just a reminder. All of these--especially the instructional positions--they're all driven by the formula that we use based on the class size that we distribute to each of the schools to make sure that we maintain the class size and the appropriate level of instructional personnel that correspond to that class size.”

“And that's been consistent for years, I think,” Burgess continued. “Jason, is that correct?”

“Yes,” Branch responded. “We allocate regular Ed teachers at 22.5 students per teacher. Special education teachers are allocated based on student need, as are our special education para professionals.”

“The instructional support specialist and some other items you see there are based on addition of schools or school populations,” Branch said.

The new curricular costs of $340,587 in the budget are the “the first year cost for the new elementary and secondary curriculum that was approved at the April 15th Board meeting to meet new standards,” Childers told the Board.

Included is $241,264 for science, social studies, and the language arts curriculum at the elementary school level and $99,323 secondary level for the high science and social studies curriculum.

Revenue Sources

The tentative budget lists $116. 6 in revenue to offset the $114.9 in proposed spending.

Considerations And Costs

Included is just more than $61.1 million in state funding (52.4 percent) and just more than $55.4 million in local revenue (47.6 percent).

Funding through the Quality Basic Education formula produces $57.5 million of that state revenue.

Property and ad valorem taxes ($52.1 million) make up the bulk of the local funding.

The projection is based on the estimated tax digest, which is a five-year average of digest growth, Childers said. The last two years the digest increased by more than 15 percent.

“So that's an estimate,” Burgess said.

“Yeah, it's tentative,” he continued. “We don't know what it's going to be until we get a final digest later, later, several months. So we're estimating and projecting based on previous experience what it could be or may be?”

“That's correct,” Childers responded.

Fund Balance

Childers said that the estimated Fund Balance at the end of this fiscal year on June 30 will be $40 million.

Fund Balance 2025

She labeled $14.8 million of that as committed, and just less than $6 million as assigned, leaving an unassigned fund balance on June 30 of $19.2 million.

That unassigned fund balance will grow to $20.9 million in June 30 of 2025 because revenue exceeds spending in the tentative budget by $1.7 million.

The committed fund balance of $14.8 million is to cover retirement of general obligation bonds issued by the Board of Education after passage of the current Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST).

Spending on the projects listed in the ELOST project list exceeded the expected revenue from ELOST, necessitating setting aside money from the General Fund.

The assigned fund balance of just less than $6 million is to cover new school generators ($1.2 million), the new curriculum ($1.7 million), and the ongoing renovation at Rocky Branch Elementary School $3.1 million.

Burgess On Fund Balance

Burgess told Childers he wanted to “make sure I understand the $14.8 (million committed fund balance) correctly.”

“Based on the bond issue that we issued when we started the current ELOST 6,” he said. “The projection and then that bond issue was used to fund all the expenditures for all the various projects that have been going on for the last several years.”

“If I understand this ($)14.8 (million) correctly,” he said. “It will effectively act as a fully funded escrow account to ensure that the dollars are there to pay for the debt service for the remaining years of that bond issue without drawing any additional funds except for ELOST collections.”

“Correct, yes sir,” Childers responded.

“So it's kind of, it's a guarantee, it's a protection, to ensure that no matter what happens with our budget--let's hope there's nothing bad with that--but no matter what happens with our budget going forward,” Burgess continued, “we will have ensured that we have an escrow account that pays off the debt that we owe on those bonds?”

“Yes sir,” Childers responded.

Federal Funds

Childers, on behalf of Branch, also placed before the Board for action on Monday, a Fiscal Year 2025 tentative budget for federal funds of $7.4 million.

Instructional Support Center

“We are allocated federal funds that pass through the (Georgia) Department of Education,” she said. “These funds are restricted for the purposes of each grant.”

She did not elaborate, and there was no discussion of the budget.

The largest component of the Federal Funds Budget for Fiscal Year 2025 is $3.7 million in school nutrition funding, followed by $2.7 million in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds.

Other Action

In his Superintendent’s report at the meeting on Monday, Branch said it is “our first opportunity to celebrate something that's good for the individual but not so good for our system.”

Branch said that Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff has been named as the sole finalist for superintendent at Barrow County Schools.

In executive session following the work session on Monday, the Board of Education approved the appointment of Anne Poss as the new principal at Oconee County Middle School.

Poss, who is an assistant principal at Oconee County Middle School, will follow Matt Stephens, who is moving to serve as the new principal at Oconee County High School.

Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities, told the Board in his report on Monday that “we are continuing to make really great progress” on construction of the Instructional Support Center on North High Street in Watkinsville.

“We are closing in on being finished and ready for our ribbon cutting in June and our move in in June as well.”

Final work on the classroom addition is nearly complete at Malcom Bridge Elementary School, he said, and work on the renovation and modifications at Rocky Branch Elementary School will begin as soon as school ends on June 17.


The agenda for the meeting on Monday did not mention that the budget was to be presented to the Board.

Although video of the meetings generally is released at 8 a.m. on Tuesday following the meeting, the video from Monday was not released until late on Tuesday afternoon.

I wrote to Steven Colquitt, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, who is responsible for the video, at 10:03 a.m., 11:33 a.m., and 2:13 p.m. on Tuesday asking him when he would release the video. I copied Board Chair Argo on my emails.

Argo wrote me back at 2:44 p.m. and said “I have read your message. However, Steven will need to reply.”

Colquitt wrote me back at 11:36 a.m. and said “The video from last night's board meeting will be up later today.”

Colquitt knew that I did not attend the meeting on Monday and that I was dependent on the video for my report of the meeting.

He also knew that by withholding the video until late in the day, it made it less likely I would get a story written in time for The Oconee Enterprise to use it in tomorrow’s edition–before the meeting on Monday.

I sent a version of this post to the Enterprise late on Tuesday night, and it appears at the bottom of the first page of the Thursday paper.

The video below is the one Colquitt uploaded late on Tuesday and is on the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools.

Branch began his superintendent’s report at 0:30 in the video.

Ricketson gave his operations report at 19: 10 in the video.

Childers began her presentation at 25:11 in the video.


Michael Prochaska said...

This is Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise.
For the sake of transparency, I'd like to explain how things transpired on my end.

I received a summary of the BOC meeting and a short story of the BOE meeting by Lee Becker on Tuesday night. I actually didn't see it until Wednesday morning, as I go to bed fairly early so I can wake up early.
When I read the BOE story, I decided to place it on the front page with various edits and additions. One thing I considered including was a time stamp of when the BOE meeting was uploaded so that readers would know how much time had passed between the meeting and the release of the video. But that would have been the extent of it. I would not have theorized "why" the video was released later than normal. Ultimately, I decided not to include that information at all.

Lee, you and I disagree journalistically on the approach you took in the last few paragraphs. I don't think it's fair to allege an intent on behalf of Mr. Colquitt without evidence. Had you asked him why there was a delay, and he said what you accuse him of, then, then that would be fair use. But that did not happen. Or another fair thing to do would be to ask him why there was a delay in the posting of the video and if he didn't respond, simply say that he could not be reached for comment. But I don't think it's appropriate in a news story to state what his intentions were without any proof. I think your assertion is an opinion, not a fact, and would be more appropriate in an opinion piece.

So while I will be using excerpts of your story, I will not be using the potion where you write about the delay in the posting of the BOE meeting video, as I do not agree with how you wrote that portion.

Lee Becker said...

Michael, we can disagree. I just want to make it clear that what I sent you on Tuesday night was not the full story I posted on Wednesday, but only the top eight paragraphs of that story.