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BOE discusses budget, rezonings

COVINGTON -- Newton County school officials aren't much more clear about the budget shortfall, but they are looking at all of their options.

The Newton County Board of Education held a special called planning meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss the budget, the millage rate and a possible middle school rezoning.

Newton County School System Superintendent Steven Whatley told the board members that the system has not yet received the state revenue figures or the local tax digest values. He said the state may release figures Monday, and the local tax digest may be received the week of May 24.

"I'm going to be shooting in the dark Tuesday night when I present the budget," he said during the special meeting.

To keep on track with the school system's budget calendar, Whatley has to present the board with a tentative budget at Tuesday's scheduled meeting. The board is supposed to adopt a tentative budget on May 18, but can change it until it adopts a final version on June 15.

Although NCSS doesn't know yet what revenues will be, the system is expecting at least a $10 million shortfall without a reserve balance or increasing the millage rate.

Whatley presented to the board a list of scenarios if the board increased the millage rate, which is set each year.

"(NCSS officials) wanted to see how much room there was and how much money (it would) bring in, realizing the values of the digest has dropped," Whatley said. "That's a balancing act for us."

If the board kept the millage rate the same for maintenance and operations, which is currently 18.21 mills, taxes paid on a $125,000 house -- the average home price in the county -- would be $838. At 19.12 mills -- the anticipated rollback rate -- it would be $880. At 20 mills -- the maximum amount allowed to be set by the school board -- taxes would be $920.

However, Whatley said the local tax office anticipated home assessment decreases, possibly up to 14 percent.

At a 14 percent assessment decrease, residents would pay $710 on a $125,000 home; at 18.21 mills; $746 at 19.12 mills; and $780 for 20 mills.

"At a 10 percent (decrease in assessment), all millage rates that we could possibly assess ... would pay less," Whatley said.

The board plans to hold public meetings regarding the adoption of the budget and setting the millage rate at 6:30 or 6:45 p.m. June 8, at 9 a.m. June 15 and at 6:30 or 6:45 p.m. June 15, after which the board will adopt a final budget and millage rate. The meetings are required under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

"If we increase the millage, we have to hold public meetings," Whatley said. "We've always (held meetings), even though we've mandated over the last five years (a millage rate) of 18.21."

Whatley also charged the board with addressing the overcrowding at Liberty and Veterans Memorial middle schools, which currently serve 1,191 and 1,061 students, respectively, according to the April 1 enrollment report.

"These decisions have to be made quickly because letters have to get out, staff transferred and packing up," Whatley said during the special called meeting.

Originally, middle school rezoning was scheduled to be a topic of discussion at the board's April meeting, but it was removed from the agenda before the meeting and not discussed.

Board member Johnny Smith on Thursday suggested putting the two theme schools, which consist of kindergarten through eighth grades, under one roof to free up one building to help with budget constraints.

"That's too many children" in one school building, said school board member C.C. Bates.

"There are too many children at Liberty and too many children at Veterans, so there is no good answer," said school board Chair Cathy Dobbs.

At Fairview, 428 students are enrolled, and 343 are enrolled at Clements, according to the April 1 enrollment report. Currently, 108 students are in sixth grade, 66 in seventh grade, 33 in eighth grade and 69 in fifth grade, according to Linda Hayden, director of curriculum and instruction at NCSS.

Bates, who has a child at Fairview, said she is afraid if the middle school theme school students are brought into Fairview, many Fairview parents will leave the theme school because they don't want their younger students mixing with older students.

"I don't want to dissolve (Clements Theme School). I just don't want them all at Fairview," Bates said.

The board members decided that Whatley and his staff members should work this week and next week to come up with about three scenarios that the board can vote on at its next meeting. Options may include the rezoning of each of the five middle schools and only rezoning Liberty and Veterans Memorial middle schools and reorganizing the theme schools, Whatley said.

He said the board also needed to decide if the middle schools are rezoned, if they will allow rising eighth-graders to remain at their current schools, as long as the families provide transportation, which is traditionally allowed.

"We gotta get away from that," said board member Eddie Johnson. "We are a mobile society, and I think the kids can jump back from that."

Bates disagreed, saying she didn't think making those children move would be in their best interest, as they were already acclimated to that school.

"I care if they have a vested experience there," she said.

The board did not take any votes Thursday.

"I think we need some time to think about this," Dobbs said. "We'll meet again Tuesday night."

The school board will meet again during its monthly work session, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the board room of the Newton County BOE building, located at 2109 Newton Drive N.E., in Covington. It has not yet released its agenda for the meeting.

Whatley also said Thursday that he plans to release teacher contracts by May 13, although NCSS isn't required to release them until May 15. Teachers have up to 10 days to return them to NCSS.