Future school closures, tax increase among options weighed by Bibb County school board


Grant Blankenship | Georgia Public Broadcasting

Burdell-Hunt Elementary School students in 2017. The school is one of 11 Bibb elementary schools to be under-enrolled according to state rules.

The Bibb County school board must soon decide whether to increase taxes and take major cost-cutting measures or risk a financial deficit in 2027.

“We know we cannot allow that to happen,” Bibb Schools Chief Financial Officer Sharon Roberts said about the potential deficit to the board in April at its second budget work session.

The third and final budget work session is slated for May 16.

“We need to look at the rezoning options to reduce facility cost,” Roberts said. “We need to look at reducing personnel at school and the system level.”

School closures, reducing the number of teachers and district employees and tax increases are once again options on the table as the board hears proposals and weighs considerations for how it can maintain fiscal stability amid declining enrollment.

Should the board take no action to reduce expenses or increase revenue, Roberts said the district would have a fund balance below 8%, the state’s minimum, in 2026 and a negative fund balance in 2027.

An infusion of federal dollars related to the global pandemic have helped public school districts, including Bibb, maintain financial stability in recent years, but many of those grants require that money to be spent by 2025.

The Georgia Department of Education funds schools based on the number of students enrolled in March and October each year. The district reported enrollment of 21,312 students in March, about 80 fewer than October 2022 when enrollment numbers hit a 5-year high, according to the district’s reports to the state.

About half of Bibb County Schools are expected to have enrollment numbers below the minimum required for the state to fund positions like media specialists, according to Roberts’ projections.

The state’s base-size enrollment is 450 for elementary schools, 624 for middle schools and 970 for high schools. The district anticipates 11 of its 21 elementary schools will have too few students. Four of the six high schools and two of six middle schools also are expected to be under-enrolled per the state rule.

Under-enrolled schools cost the district more to operate in part because the state does not pay for key positions such as media specialists and secretaries. The district pays salaries for those positions with local money.

The latest budget presentation shows the district anticipates about 100 fewer students each year. The district uses about half of its school building space and is paying a premium in local dollars to staff and operate the schools, which require costs such as utilities, transportation, nutrition, counselors and more.

Bibb Schools Chief Financial Officer Sharon Roberts presented a budget projection estimating the financial state the district might be in should the school board choose not to raise taxes or cut expenses.

Potential school closures were introduced as an option during a called meeting last May when Superintendent Curtis Jones told the board he didn’t see a way around future closures.

In the May 24, 2022, called meeting, the board voted to create a special committee that would spend the next year studying potential school closures, according to The Macon Newsroom’s recording of the meeting. Jones commended the board for its decision to begin studying the issue because, he said, “it would show respect for taxpayers by saying you’re doing all you can to be fiscally sound.”

However, the topic of school closures has not been broached in board meetings since.

Bibb Schools spokesperson Stephanie Hartley said discussions “have been held internally with cabinet-level staff and some directors regarding building usage compared to student enrollment.” Planning possible school closures will be a multi-year process with community engagement throughout, she said.

‘Cannot tax our way out’

The board has heard a number of possibilities for how it might cut costs and increase revenue, but Superintendent Dan Sims has not yet indicated a preference for any options or direction.

“I don’t want anybody to walk away with any thoughts that we’re leaning in any direction, that we’re closing anybody’s school, that we’re raising anybody’s taxes,” Sims said after the April 10 budget work session. “But we are looking at every scenario that exists on the spectrum of increasing revenues and decreasing costs.”

A plan for Bibb Schools to save $9 million includes closing two schools in coming years and reducing the number of teachers, according to this slide presented to the school board at its April 10, 2023, budget work session.

One option Roberts presented at that budget work session would save the district $9 million. The plan includes closing two schools  – one in 2026 and another in 2028 – eliminating 48 teaching positions and 10 district jobs plus reducing consultants and travel expenses.

Another way to save the district money is to maintain the millage rate at 16.72 in 2024, then increase it to 17.22 mills in 2025 and 19.22 mills in 2026.

Roberts said Bibb has rolled back its millage rate for six straight years, which has resulted in the district forgoing millions in local tax dollars. Should the board vote to maintain the millage rate instead of approving a roll back rate, it could mean an extra $900k each year for the district. A mill is valued at $4,853,647, Roberts said.

The maximum millage rate for Georgia public school districts is 20 mills.

Board member Daryl Morton said Roberts made it clear that “we cannot tax our way out of this problem.”

“No, sir. We cannot,” Roberts said. “Nor do we necessarily want to.”

Spending and saving

In addition to raising taxes, upping revenue and cutting expenses, the board also must decide whether it will implement results from a salary study it hired a consultant to conduct. The study showed Bibb Schools is behind compared to surrounding public school districts when it comes to salaries for certified employees.

Burdell-Hunt Elementary School students in 2017. The school is one of 11 Bibb elementary schools to be under-enrolled according to state rules. (Grant Blankenship | Georgia Public Broadcasting)

The lower rate of pay makes the district less competitive, Roberts said, and does little to help the existing challenge of recruitment and retention. Implementing recommendations from the study would cost $4.3 million.

Another option for cutting costs is to limit the certification level for pre-k teachers so they are paid only what the district receives from the Georgia Department of Early Childcare, DECAL, and Learning. At present, Bibb Schools’ pre-k teachers are paid on the same salary schedule as other teachers. The district pays the difference between what the teacher makes based on their certification level and what it receives from DECAL.

Last year, that amounted to more than $500,000. Should the board choose to limit the certification level for pre-k teachers and move those teachers to grade-level classes, it would receive more money from the Georgia Department of Education to cover their salaries.

Outstanding information needed to firm up financial projections includes the county tax digest and the amount it will receive from the Georgia Department of Education to educate each student.

The state recently increased equalization funding for Bibb County by $7.3 million. Equalization money is extra funding the state provides to less wealthy districts to help them reach the wealthiest district’s funding levels.

Other changes to affect the budget include:

  • A 2% raise for classified staff (locally funded)
  • A 5.1% raise for bus drivers and monitors (partially funded by state)
  • A $2,000 salary increase for most certified staff (funded by state)
  • A $1,000 salary increase for custodians (funded by the state)
  • An increase in state health insurance costs for certified staff by $7,620 per employee yearly (funded by the state for “earned” positions)
  • An increase in state health insurance costs for classified staff by $1,500 per person yearly (locally funded)

The budget for fiscal year 2023-24 is set for tentative adoption May 23. Two public hearings are slated for June 6 and June 13 with a final vote to adopt set for June 16.

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