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School Board stretches to cover budget

Article Date: 
15 June, 2012 (All day)

Although the Morgan County School Board voted to dip into pay-as-you-go funds to balance the “bare bones” budget this year, they are promising the tax payers a tax increase next year.
“A tax increase is coming.  There is no other way around it,” Boardmember Neil Carrigan said.  “Next year there may be positions lost and large class sizes.  But there will be an increase in taxes.  It is not a matter of ‘if.’  Get ready for it.”
The board considered raising property taxes by as much as $58.50 a year for a $200,000 home effective in November, but ultimately voted against it in a Tuesday meeting that lasted late into the evening.
Boardmember Jody Hipwell said delaying the tax increase another year would just “give more time for crap to hit the fan.”
“I don’t think they’re going to be surprised (we’re raising taxes),” Hipwell said.  “People know we are short.  They know we are making cuts.  The parents involved know what’s going on.”
The tax increase was discussed on the heels of the board cutting $402,000 from the budget including a $15,000 cut to travel, $8,000 cut for field trips, discontinuation of all-day kindergarten, cancelling funding for an employee wellness program, administrative changes, loss of professional development days, and using $150,000 from the rainy day fund.  In addition, the district has not purchased a new bus in two years.
The board also considered not replacing a fifth grade Morgan Elementary School teacher and a third grade teacher at Mountain Green Elementary.  The move would mean class sizes of 33, or the highest for any fifth grade class in the state, Superintendent Ken Adams said.  Third grade at Mountain Green Elementary would have a 27 to 1 student to teacher ratio.
But board members weren’t willing to negatively impact students with such class sizes.
“You’re starting to hurt kids.  Class sizes of 33 is not what is best for the kids,” Hipwell said.  “We can’t ask to keep cutting.  I don’t think there’s more places you can cut.”
The board voted to replace the third and fifth grade teaching positions in question, take at least $170,000 out of the pay-as-you-go fund, sell the old bus garage property, and ask the Morgan Elementary Community Council for $22,000 of trustland money to fund teacher salaries at that school.
The pay-as-you-go fund was originally created at the request of residents to collect funds until needed for large construction projects.  There is about $680,000 in that fund now.  After subtracting the $170,000 to balance the budget, the remaining balance would be about $510,000.
In the future, the board may have to consider moving students from Morgan Elementary to Mountain Green Elementary, Adams said.
“Morgan Elementary is bursting at the seams,” he said.
Mountain Green Elementary Principal Tom McFarland and Morgan Middle School Principal Mike Madeo both encouraged the board to take a dual approach at solving the current financial crisis.  Both cutting spending and increasing taxes is the only way out of the financial “hole,” they said.
But many employees say they have already done their part in cutting expenses.
“We have already cut half a million dollars.  We’re going to reel from just that next year,” said Heidi Andreason, a seventh grade teacher at Morgan Middle School.  “Now you’re asking for more?  The only way to bring more money into our district is to raise taxes.”
“It is now affecting the kids,” Morgan High School Principal Wade Murdock said.  “We have got to the point where there is nowhere we can possibly cut.  It is frustrating.”
“We are already begging for money,” Adams said.  “How can we cut more?”
“It hurts and it hurts bad, but we are to that point,” Board President Joey Skinner said.
Boardmember Ken Durrant encouraged board members to build in a contingency in future budgets.
“The budget is sitting on a shoestring,” he said.  “You have good and bad years, so we need a contingency.  We’ve got to be forward-thinking.”
The board’s decision not to raise taxes this year will mean the district will operate during the 2012-2013 without a contingency.
“Basically, what you did last year was cut to the bone and keep your fingers crossed,” Adams said.  The move to not raise taxes will be a repeat of that, he said.
 Already, a credit rating firm advised the Morgan School District to increase their fund balance years ago, Business Administrator D’Lynn Poll said.  Since, the economy worsened and the district used up the remaining fund balance rather than increasing the amount that rolled over from year to year in reserve.
“When you’re down to zero, you are in a scary zone,” Boardmember Bruce Galbraith said.
Durrant agreed.
“We are over the cliff.  We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” he said.  “Somewhere down the road you’ve got to pay the piper.  The economy is not going to turn around in three years.”
Poll said she is done lowering tax rates. 
“Over the years I have lowered rates so we don’t increase taxes to land owners,” Poll said.  “We’re to the point we can’t lower tax rates anymore.”