Frank Myers and John Thomas have gained support in their crusade for more accountability and transparency on the Muscogee County School Board, but they still lack the votes to enact the change they seek.
The struggle was on display during the board's called meeting Monday night, when Mark Cantrell joined the two newcomers as the opposition in four 5-3 votes:
Cantrell's motion failed to roll back the millage rate on property taxes from 23.37 to 23.327 mills.
The majority instead approved tentative adoption of the administration's recommendation to keep the same millage rate for the 19th straight year.
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Myers' motion failed to table the vote on tentative adoption of the fiscal year 2016 budget. He and Thomas objected to the budget summary the board was provided and called for a line-item report. Myers wanted to delay action for two weeks to give board members more detail and more time than the "96 hours" they had to consider the administration's proposal.
The majority instead approved tentative adoption of the administration's recommended fiscal year budget of $268,746,786 - an increase of $4,029,176 (1.52 percent), including $2.7 million in raises for an estimated 30-40 percent of the 3,900 full-time employees. State law requires the tentative budget to be adopted two weeks before the final vote, which must be taken before July 1.
Cantrell of District 6, Myers of District 8 and Thomas of District 2 voted in opposition. The majority votes were cast by chairman Rob Varner of District 5, vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3, Naomi Bucker of District 4 and newly elected Kia Chambers, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, who also asked for more budget detail. Shannon Smallman of District 7 was absent.
The board has two more meetings to finalize the millage rate and budget:
June 8, 5 p.m. -- public hearing on tentative budget; monthly work session. Board members will gather at 4 p.m. to hear a Georgia Department of Education official further explain the options for governance, which the Ledger-Enquirer reported last week. That discussion also is open to the public. The board must choose its form of governance by June 30.
June 15, 6 p.m. -- vote on final adoption of millage rate and budget; monthly meeting.
Although the millage rate would stay the same if the tentative adoption is finalized, the school district legally must term it a tax increase because it would benefit from an increase in the tax digest from new or improved property, projected to be 1.5 percent. State law requires the board to roll back its millage rate an equivalent amount, which would be by 0.043 mills and cost the district about $182,000 in revenue (previously estimated at $99,000). That would have meant a tax break of $1.14 on a home with a fair market value of $100,000 and a reduction of $2.58 for non-homestead property with a fair market value of $150,000.
The only way keeping the millage rate at 23.37 would be an actual tax increase on a property owner, said superintendent David Lewis, is if the owner improved that property. Cantrell, however, said more than 300 citizens have contacted him since he called for the rollback last month. "When you explain for 20 minutes that this is not a tax increase, it's hard to swallow," he said.
Cantrell wants the rollback to thank voters for renewing in a March referendum the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to collect $192,185,000 for capital projects or until the tax, which returns July 1, expires in five years. Green repeated her argument that SPLOST money can't be spent on operating costs, which include salaries.
An improved economy is the main factor enabling the proposed raises. The district's state revenue is projected to increase by $6,587,475 (4.59 percent) to $150,137,807, and local revenue is projected to increase by $2,415,366 (2.24 percent) to $110,065,724.
Also making the proposed raises possible would be taking $5,026,335 from the reserve. The Government Finance Officers Association suggests a minimum of 60 days worth of operations. MCSD's reserve fund hasn't been at 60 days since fiscal year 2013. The FY 2016 projected reserve is $29,227,667, equivalent to 40 days of operations.
Myers referred to the 13 school districts in MCSD's comparison group.
"We're just really lucky that Bibb County and Richmond County exist, otherwise we would be the - I don't know a nice way to put it - the armpit of education in second-tier Georgia cities. We have the third-highest millage rate in the state of Georgia, yet nine of those 13 school systems have zero perpetually failing schools and we have 10. So money's not the issue. ... At some point, we've got to put academic achievement, so we can compete with these other school systems, above a couple hundred thousand dollars. The people just gave us $192 million. Can we not shift gears to academic achievement for just a short time - just a short time - and give the taxpayers a $200,000 break?"
Buckner replied, "This is the board of education, and the goal is always academic achievement. We never shift from that main goal."
Thomas noted the state constitution limits school districts to a property tax rate of 20 mills, unless they are granted an exception. Muscogee has one because it operates the Columbus Museum and the county's public libraries. He added that all of those extra 3.37 mills don't go to the museum and the libraries, "so we have an advantage over so many other school districts in this state."
Lewis explained the district absorbs indirect costs beyond the millage the museum and libraries receive.
Thomas also noted it would be harder to raise the millage rate after a rollback. "That's why there's so much resistance to this," he said.
Myers had board secretary Karen Jones project on the boardroom's screen the line-item budget from Douglas County, which amounted to 357 pages, compared to MCSD's budget notebook containing 37 pages.
"I'm just dumbfounded to think that we are supposed to make an intelligent decision as board members on the financial future of our school district under this horrible plan," Myers said. "And I'm not even talking about the budget because I don't know what's in the budget, folks. That's the problem. There's a direct correlation between the way we're handling our financial affairs and the way we are failing our kids in these schools."
Thomas and Chambers had asked the administration for more detail, but the 200-plus pages they received was "raw input data" and not a line-item budget, Thomas said.
Following more than 1 hour of discussion, Lewis said his administration will try to comply with board members' requests for more detail about the budget.
After the meeting, Green told the Ledger-Enquirer that she thanks the citizens for their continued support of the SPLOST, "but I could not vote for rolling back (property taxes) when we already are short on the budget."
Green said she voted to approve the tentative budget without the extra detail requested because "we've been getting this information since January, and I've been processing it since January, so I didn't see where anything was going to change in the next couple of weeks. We still have until June 15 to review and ask all the questions. I don't know that what we spend on air conditioning or tires is going to make a difference in the outcome on the budget."