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Teacher pay raises priority for NCSS budget

COVINGTON — A top priority for the Newton County Board of Education as it looks toward adopting next year’s budget is to increase teachers pay and salary benefits and to remove at least one furlough day.

“If we’re losing or not retaining good teachers due to the salaries we’re offering, it’s incumbent on us to do something to retain good teachers,” BOE member Almond Turner said during a budget work session Monday afternoon at the Newton County Board of Education offices.

Peggy Bullard, business manager for the Newton County School System, presented a proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, which would run from July 1 to June 30.

The 2015 budget anticipates a $6.5 million increase in state revenue and a 3 percent increase in the local tax digest with the millage rate remaining at 20 mills. If approved, the 2015 budget would be $163,350,580, an increase over the current fiscal year’s budget of $157,655,751. Under this budget, the beginning fund balance would grow from $18.84 million to a projected $19.26 million.

Furthermore, the bond millage rate would decrease from 1.9 mills to .45 mills, since SPLOST IV funds would be used to pay down part of the school system’s debt.

With the increase in state funding and the county’s tax assessor’s projection of a 3 to 4 percent increase in the local tax digest, the average home owner would be looking at a slightly decreased school tax bill, Bullard said.

Based on her calculations, the owner of a home valued at $100,000 paid $720 in maintenance and operations plus $76 on the bond portion of the school tax bill for a total of $796. If the 2015 budget is approved, the same homeowner — whose home would now be valued at $103,000 — would pay $744 in M&O taxes and $19 on bond debt, for a total school tax bill of $763.

With the expected increase in revenue, Bullard and Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey proposed adding 12.5 new positions and offered board members a couple of options to increase pay and benefits for teachers.

The most conservative option — which was accounted for in the proposed budget presented by Bullard — would be to provide a 1 percent salary schedule increase, a step increase for eligible employees and one additional work day, removing one of the four furlough days.

Building in anticipated increases for health insurance costs and step increases for the next two budget cycles ending in 2017, the budget would grow by about $2 million each year. The ending fund balance would be $17.28 million in 2015-16 and $13.88 million in fiscal year 2016-17. Bullard said that even though this pay plan would erode the fund balance some, it would still be considered healthy, remaining more than the $10 million the school system likes to maintain.

The second option is more generous, offering a 2 percent increase in the salary schedule, a step increase and removing two furlough days.

This proposal would move the 2014-15 expenditures from $144 million to $145.5 million. The budget would increase by approximately $2.5 million each year through fiscal year 2017 and the ending fund balance would drop to about $9.67 million by that year.

Bullard said the budgets were created using very conservative assumptions of revenue and that she would feel comfortable with either option.

Fuhrey said she would like to offer teachers as much as possible, but just wants to make sure any increases can be sustained.

“I’m real conservative because I don’t want to give something and then have to take it away,” she said.

Fuhrey suggested the board consider adopting a hybrid between the two options, such as a 1 percent increase, a step increase and remove two furlough days or a 2 percent increase a step increase and remove 1 furlough day. She agreed with Board Chairwoman Shakila Henderson-Baker that a mid-term budget meeting in the fall would be advisable to see how the budget is shaping up by that time.

At the request of the board members, Fuhrey offered to provide a chart outlining four options ranging from the most conservative to the most generous before the BOE is slated to vote on the tentative budget at its Tuesday, May 13, meeting.