Bibb Superintendent on school closures: ‘I don’t see a way around it’


Jason Vorhees | The Telegraph

Thelma Dillard, president of the Bibb County School Board, at the May 10, 2022 meeting.

The Bibb County School Board will soon have to make hard cost-cutting decisions if it expects the school district to be financially sound in four years, the district’s chief financial officer said Tuesday at a called budget meeting.

Enrollment has declined for years in most public school districts across the country. The latest projections for Bibb Schools show no signs of improvement.

Federal money the district has received since the pandemic helped to delay some tough calls  such as whether to consider raising taxes or consolidating schools that have low student enrollment. The board voted unanimously Tuesday to eliminate some vacant positions to start the cost-cutting process.

“We’ve just been kind of kicking it down the road these last couple of years,” Chief Financial Officer Sharon Roberts told the board. “Having many smaller schools below base-size causes higher administrative costs …  So we do need to start looking at all those costs and there’s no better time, you know, just from my opinion, than to start now.”

The Georgia Department of Education’s base-size enrollment is 450 for elementary schools. Of the 21 elementary schools in Bibb, 14 have too few students.

L.H. Williams Elementary School in Pleasant Hill has the fewest students with an enrollment of 279. The school board considered closing it in 2018 but instead voted to close Brookdale Elementary and consolidate it with Riley Elementary.

Still, more than 60% of Bibb Schools lack the minimum enrollment required by the state for it to fund positions like a media specialist.

Roberts suggested that a committee could be formed to study over the next year the various ways the district might be able to cut costs.

Board member Juawn Jackson said potentially closing schools is something “we know is going to be a very touchy topic.”

Superintendent Curtis Jones told the board that when it comes to consolidating schools, “I’ll be quite honest, I just don’t see how you’re gonna get around it.”

In related business, the board approved a plan for a budget that includes fewer assistant principals.

Enrollment projections for Bibb County Schools. (Screen grab)

Nine assistant principal positions were recently vacated and, at the board’s request, Roberts presented three options for the budget related to those positions.

The first option was to save millions by excluding all nine positions from the fiscal year 2023 budget. A second option was to eliminate four positions and have 10 schools share five assistant principals. The final option was to continue budgeting for those positions.

Board member Myrtice Johnson wanted to know what Roberts would choose. Roberts said she would eliminate the positions to reduce administrative costs. All schools would still have at least one assistant principal.

The board was split on the matter. Board members James Freeman, Myrtice Johnson and Juawn Jackson said they preferred to keep all nine positions, a move that Roberts warned would land the district in “a cash flow crisis” by 2026

Superintendent Curtis Jones said the board is facing the same dilemma it was years ago during his first meeting. The board heeded the public’s objections to having half-time principals at six schools but it wound up raising the millage rate to pay for those positions.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to eliminate the nine positions and advertise the budget hearings in Friday’s newspaper.

Schools eliminating one assistant principal position include: Southfield, Veterans and John R. Lewis elementaries; Appling, Ballard-Hudson, Rutland and Miller middle schools plus Central, Northeast and Southwest high schools.

Other highlights of the budget include:

  • No increase in the millage rate.
  • Salary increases for certified staff of $3,000 or 4%, whichever is greater.
  • Salary increases for classified staff by 4-6% for bus drivers, bus monitors, school. nutrition non-supervisory staff, crossing guards and hall monitors.
  • Five new positions including a school psychologist and campus police communications officer.
  • No austerity cuts by the state from the Quality Basic Education funding formula that determines the dollar amount districts receive per enrolled student.
  • Reduced equalization funding from the state by $3.1 million.
  • Positions funded by CARES Act for continuity of service returned to the general fund.

In other business Tuesday night, the Macon-Bibb Urban Development Authority requested approval from the school board to agree to a pre-approved 20 yearslong tax break to incentivize downtown developers of projects costing more than $14 million.

Alex Morrison, executive director for the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, pitches a new schedule for the Heartbeat Incentive Program to the school board at a called meeting May 24, 2022. The tax abatement program is to attract developers to build projects downtown. (Laura Corley | The Macon Newsroom)

UDA Executive Director Alex Morrison presented the school board with a new schedule for the Heartbeat Incentive Program, which includes 10 and 20-year tax abatements “for projects we’re hoping will come to fruition in Macon-Bibb County over the next several years,” he said. “There’s at least one project in the pipeline that would benefit from this.”

The Heartbeat Incentive Program was created in 2008 to kickstart residential projects in downtown but early efforts to draw development were stymied by the economic recession.

In recent years, two projects have been developed under the program including the Lofts at 401 Cherry St. and the Lofts at Capricorn. The Cherry Street lofts project is in its final year of a decade-long tax abatement schedule and will be on the tax rolls next year, Morrison said.

Both lofts were projects of Sierra Development.

“That represented about a $2 million swing in the property value,” Morrison said of the Cherry Street lofts.

The Lofts at Capricorn was a project under the 10-year program that included the caveat that only the first $12 million would be abated, Morrison said. An additional $16 million spent on the project is fully taxed.

“Had we not done the incentive for the first $12 million, they would not have done the project,” Morrison said. “So that got us thinking: there are bigger projects out there that need an incentive but they don’t need a full abatement of the entire project.”

The 20-year abatement deal would only apply to downtown development costing $14 million or more.

“In the previous two interactions of the Heartbeat Incentive Program, that tax abatement was for 100% of the property value,” Morrison said. “We’re eliminating that … and locking in a pre-improvement level that stays taxable. So they only get to abate the improvements, meaning that the taxing authorities do not receive less than they are today.”

The incentive would help create more quality, affordable housing downtown and it would be “a win-win for the tax paying citizens of Bibb County,” Morrison said.

The school board did not take action on the Heartbeat Incentive Program and is expected to take up the topic at a future meeting. The next meeting is a public hearing on the budget set for June 7 at 6 p.m.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of the public hearing set for June 7. Additionally, the article incorrectly stated the number of recently retired assistant principals because some resigned for jobs in other districts instead of retiring.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, email [email protected] or call 478-301-5777.