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Columbia County school board adopts budget

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The Columbia County school board gave final approval Tuesday to a multimillion-dollar budget that had to make up for massive losses in state revenues.

The board adopted the $173 million budget, which they balanced by drawing heavily from reserves and cutting educator positions.

For weeks, though, school officials focused on such positives as not initiating furloughs or cutting the school calendar to overcome a $13 million shortfall in state funding. Officials also avoided a tax increase, such as the half-mill increase they approved last year to make up state cuts.

However, officials pulled more than $7.5 million from the school system’s reserves, which are used to maintain cash flow and pay employees until the year’s tax receipts and state funding arrives. That withdrawal drops the system below the state-recommended limit of 15 percent of its total budget.

“Though I’m not thrilled we’re dropping below the 15 percent revenue line, I understand it’s the situation we’re in,” said Trustee Mike Sleeper.

The system saved about $5 million in payroll expenses when the board voted in March to eliminate 35 teaching positions and nearly 70 paraprofessionals. The job cuts were possible because the school system obtained a waiver from the state to allow slightly larger class sizes.

Cuts in maintenance, fuel and other areas, along with an anticipated reduction in the system’s electricity bills from Georgia Power Co., should help fill remaining budget gaps.

Superintendent Charles Nagle said he is “flipping cushions of the couches around the system, trying to find every dime.”

Officials also expect a 2.5 percent increase in the county’s tax digest to boost revenues.

Still, the board identified three furlough days for next year’s calendar should the planned expense reductions fall short. A single furlough day can save as much as $600,000 in payroll and operating expenses.

Because the school system will be accepting the increase in revenues from higher property assessments, state law requires the board to hold hearings to announce that tax rates won’t be rolled back to compensate for those reassessments. Those hearings, at the school board office on Hereford Farm Road in Evans, are set for 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. July 10 and 8 a.m. July 24.


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