Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Bibb school board spares property owners from tax increase, but hard decisions lie ahead

Jason Vorhees | The Telegraph
Bibb County Schools Superintendent Dan Sims delivers a presentation to the community in June 2022.

The Bibb County Board of Education voted Thursday to tentatively adopt a full rollback millage rate, a decision that makes major cost-cutting decisions such as future school closures all but imminent if the district is to remain fiscally sound.

The unanimous 8-0 vote to drop the millage rate from 16.72 to 14.65 mills – the lowest in more than a decade –  means the district will forgo millions in revenue, sparing property owners from a tax increase for at least the next year.

The school board hasn’t increased taxes since 2016, though salaries and expenses have increased.

The board also considered maintaining the millage rate and partially rolling it back, both options that amounted to tax increases. Maintaining the millage rate would have brought in more than $10 million for the district and allowed it to offer more competitive salaries and more opportunities for students and teachers.

Board member James Freeman said it is important for the board to demonstrate it has done all it can to cut costs before increasing taxes.

“In a perfect world,” Freeman said he would have liked to maintain the millage rate, “but we have to look at public sentiment and public trust. …  I’ve heard from too many people who are telling me, ‘Now is not the time for a tax increase.’”

Plans for the rollback millage rate call for closing at least two schools over the next five years, reducing staff by 58 positions and taking additional cost-cutting measures, according to Chief Financial Officer Sharon Roberts’ presentation at a special board meeting Monday. The district may have to use a Tax Anticipation Note, a type of short-term debt security, to pay employee salaries in 2025, she said. Without major cuts, Roberts said the district could be in financial jeopardy by 2026, when it would need to increase the millage rate by 2 mills.

Freeman said school closures are “something we need to be doing. I think it’s the first step in showing our commitment to the public. That’s our plan. That’s what we intend to do.”

Board President Juawn Jackson said he supported the rollback millage rate but added, “it’s counter productive to say we’re going to increase student achievement and reduce resources at their disposal. … I am urging, begging our community to stay engaged.”

Board member Sundra Woodford said she voted “with a heavy heart” for the rolled back millage rate.

“I just want to thank all of our stakeholders in advance for your patience as this board considers and has to make some very hard decisions,” Woodford said. “Some of us, maybe some more than others, will have to make sacrifices. So I just want us to remember that it is all about our students.”

Board member Myrtice Johnson said she did not want to see any schools close, “and I don’t want to see the taxes go up, but we can’t have our cake and eat it too.”

The need for the district to bring in more revenue and reduce expenses by closing schools is not a new issue facing the board.

Most of the district’s schools are under-enrolled and have fewer students than the minimum set by the Georgia Department of Education for it to fund certain positions such as media specialists.

Last May, during budgeting work sessions for fiscal year 2023, former Superintendent Curtis Jones urged the board to consider cost-cutting measures to demonstrate good stewardship and efficient use of taxpayer money. Jones also said he didn’t see any way around avoiding school closures.

However, Superintendent Dan Sims says school closures aren’t necessarily imminent but “one of several options that we have on the table.”

“If you look at the whole of our presentation over the course of all of our work sessions, we include a host of scenarios,” Sims said. “I think that’s the one that perhaps gets the most attention because it necessitates that we bring the community along with us, even in consideration phase.”

Before the vote on the millage rate Thursday, Board member Daryl Morton asked Sims if he had a preference on the matter. Sims said he preferred maintaining the millage rate at 16.72, which would have meant more than $10 million in revenue for the district.

In an interview after the meeting, Sims said his strategy for cost-cutting will be to review all expenses with employees and “be very judicious” in deciding what to cut and what to keep.

“It’s gonna take some time,” he said. “We’ll spend several months on it.”

The adoption of the roll back rate means the district will not be able to provide better opportunities for staff and students, according to Roberts’ budget presentation. It also won’t be able to afford the estimated $6 million it would cost to implement results from a salary study for bus drivers, nutrition workers and campus police.

In fact, the district was unable to fill half of the positions needed in the nutrition department for this year. Those vacancies necessitated the board’s vote Thursday to allow Superintendent Dan Sims to hire contract employees on an as-needed basis from a list of 17 companies at a cost not to exceed $165,730.

Even as the board discussed the critical need to reduce expenditures, it voted to approve a $207,540 contract renewal with Gallup Inc., a consultant company some board members questioned the value of funding.

Sims proposed a contract with Gallup Inc. during his first board meeting as superintendent last year. During that meeting, the board voted 7-1 to approve a one-year $224,350 contract with the company, which helps organizations identify its employees’ strengths. Each employees’ five  strengths are included in their email signatures.

Lovett and Sims come from Atlanta Public Schools, which contracted with Gallup in 2018. Though Atlanta schools have more than double the number of students and employees than Bibb, the company charged Bibb about $44,000 more for its services.

After a year of contracting with Gallup, Morton, who was the lone vote against it last year, remained unconvinced of its value.

“I’m trying to figure out what Gallup has done for us because all of what I’ve seen in the last year that’s a result of Gallup are five descriptors or adjectives after people’s names,” Morton said. “And we’re using this to identify teams that do well, I would think that at our school level would already tell us who’s doing well. My concern is, quite frankly, at a time where money is an issue for this system, spending $200,000 on consultants to tell us things that I think we should really already know based on the data we already have.”

Morton and Freeman voted against renewing the Gallup contract, which was adopted in a 6-2 vote Thursday.

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

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