The Bulloch County Board of Education is slated to approve fiscal year 2022 budgets Thursday evening with projected revenues totaling $151.3 million, including $102.5 million in the school system’s general fund, and requiring no tax increase.
These budgets also include a 2% locally initiated raise in base pay for the school system’s employees. Yet with many instructional expenses shifted from the general fund to a special fund that receives federal money, an unprecedented $13.1 million single-year growth in the general fund balance is projected.
Having benefited from two previous federal stimulus packages, the county school system is now budgeting for $23.5 million expected from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. The unreserved balance in the general fund is projected to be $33.4 million when the fiscal year begins this July 1 and then grow to $46.5 million by June 30, 2022. That will be like having enough money already in the bank to operate the schools for a half a year.
“Our approach is really more of a three- to five-year strategic approach,” said Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson. “It wouldn’t make good sense to just try to spend it for the sake of spending it. … and so all of the things that we’re doing over the next three to five years will be very prioritized to focus on our students, whether that’s the needs of all students or students impacted by COVID.”
The schools have documented varied learning gaps among students after the spring 2020 shutdown was followed by a partial shift to virtual instruction and numerous precautionary quarantines during the 2020-2021 school year.
School districts are required to set aside at least 20% of the ARPA funding – in Bulloch County’s case about $4.7 million – for programs to address learning losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This portion of the money is being budgeted over three fiscal years and must be spent and accounted for by Sept. 30, 2024.
But the Bulloch County Schools staff has budgeted the larger, less restricted portion of ARPA funding, roughly $19 million, all in this next fiscal year.
“The 80% we were going to spend next year, but the 20% of that $23.5 million we are going to spread out over three years,” said Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Troy Brown.
The proposed budget for the general fund shows projected expenditures of $89 million, down from almost $94 million in the year now ending. But in the special revenue funds budget, where federal money in the current year totaled about $9.3 million for established programs such as Title I and Title II academic support and teacher training, 21st Century Community after-school and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, it will swell to $28.6 million next year with the addition of ARPA.
By using the bulk of the ARPA money the first year, the school system will save and accumulate enough local dollars to continue new learning support efforts after the special federal funding stops, Wilson said.
“We’re utilizing the money to the parameters that they’ve set forth for us … and once these ARPA funds go away we will be using the local funds that we have saved to continue those efforts,” he said.
ARPA for MTSS
The plan calls for using the 20% ARPA set-aside over the next three years on special efforts to close learning gaps and expansion of what school administrators call a Multi-Tiered System of Supports, or MTSS, for students.
For the coming year, the school system is employing six educators as new instructional coaches and six others as school “climate specialists.” The instructional coaches will coach teachers on ways to help students catch up. The climate specialists will work with students on behavioral issues and emotional needs and also guide teachers in this area.
“Those are the two legs,” Wilson said. “One is academics and one is behavioral and social and emotional needs. Both of those are designed so that these people are going to be supporting teachers, and it’s progress. We’re going to have to start small and work forward.”
Additionally, “summer learning opportunities,” like those now underway at schools across the county, and a continued virtual school program are slated to be ARPA-funded.
School employee raise
Meanwhile, all Bulloch County Schools employees, with the exception of Wilson, are poised to get a 2% raise in base pay as a local initiative, not funded by the state. Wilson’s contract with the board specifically states that he is not included in faculty and staff raises.
For teachers and other employees with teaching certificates, the 2% increase will be factor only on the portion of their pay – the largest portion – that is set by the state salary scale, Brown said. The county’s local teacher pay supplement will remain the same.
Similarly, employees without teaching certificates, such as bus drivers and maintenance personnel, receive a base wage plus pay for years of experience. The raise will be 2% of the base wage but will not increase the longevity pay.
The $102.5 million total projected general fund revenue includes almost $65.5 million in regular state funding, $23.3 million from local property taxes levied by the school board and $12.7 million from the original Local Option Sales Tax, which in Bulloch County is dedicated to school operations.
The board tentatively approved the budget by a unanimous vote May 13. The vote slated for the regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday is for final budget approval but will not yet set the property tax millage rate.
For eight consecutive years the board has adopted rollback rates, reducing the millage by a fraction of one mill each year. This avoids tax increase hearings that would be required by state law if the school system took advantage of revenue increases caused by inflation in appraised values. Over that time, the rate has decreased from 9.95 to 8.918 mills, with a mill being one dollar tax per $1,000 assessed value and most property in Georgia assessed at 40% of market value.
Whether there will be a rollback of this kind this year remains to be seen, awaiting information that is usually received in July from the county tax assessors’ office, Brown said Tuesday.