Columbia County school board to look to commission for budget help

Columbia County school board members said Tuesday they might look to the county government for help solving a budget shortfall.

The county’s Tax Com­missioner’s Office charges the school system 2.5 percent of taxes collected on its behalf each school year. System Controller Pat Sullivan said that amounts to about $1.7 millioneach year.

The board agreed during a Tuesday budget study session to send a letter to county commissioners asking them to cut that percentage.

Sullivan said just half a percent cut would save the school system about $350,000.

The school system is about $1 million short in revenue to balance a proposed $174 million budget for next school year.

The county government, however, is doing so well that commissioners are considering a half-mill rollback of the millage dedicated to paying off debt. The cut would save taxpayers about $2 million.

The school system lost about $13 million in state funding for next school year.

To counteract the deficit, the school board voted in March to cut 35 teaching positions and nearly 70 teacher aides to save about $5 million in personnel costs. Even though the student population might grow by as much as 500 next school year, the cuts were achieved by raising class sizes by no more than three students per class.

Officials are considering pulling $6.2 million out of the system’s $38 million reserve fund to make up more of the deficit.

Superintendent Charles Nagle told the board that the system might make up even more with a potential $600,000 savings in energy costs, as much as 2.5 percent growth in the county tax digest, and an about $500,000 of carry-over from the current budget.

But these are short-term solutions meant to avoid a tax increase and teacher furloughs for next school year, Nagle said.

“If things do not change for next year, we will not be able to maintain without raising taxes if we continue to grow,” he said.

Another option might be to shorten the school calendar with furlough days, which saves about $700,000 per day, according to system data.

“Unless something good happens, this could be the last year you could have a full school calendar,” Nagle told the board. “We can’t keep raising class sizes.”

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