Nearly two dozen people turned out Tuesday night to ask questions and express concerns over the Columbus Municipal School District”s proposed $43.5 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The district”s chief financial officer, Kenneth Hughes, said a decrease in state and federal funding — combined with debt service, which includes the $22 million bond issue passed in 2007 to build Columbus Middle School — has led to a “lean” year.
Hughes said the district needs $14.33 million in ad valorem taxes to operate, which would require a 9-mill tax increase that could only be enacted if it passed a public referendum by three-fifths of the popular vote. A mill is worth about $205,000 in the city school district, down from $208,000 when the district was setting its budget last year.
City Councilman Charlie Box attributes the decreased mill to the city”s loss of businesses, as well as population, as people move out to the county. A mill is calculated based on the value of taxable property.
Last year, the school district received $12.6 million in ad valorem taxes, ending the fiscal year with a $900,000 shortfall. Last year”s budget was $44.1 million.
“The millage was not set high enough,” Hughes said, adding that though the majority of taxpayers (79 percent) voted to build the middle school, “as of yet, the millage rate has not been put on to pay for that.”
The district has been offsetting the costs by dipping into its operations fund.
“We understand we cannot tax the people with a 9-mill increase, but we”ve got some who don”t want the millage rate to go up at all,” Hughes said. “You have to reach some fair ground in the middle.”
The board must present its budget to the Columbus City Council by Aug. 15.
Mayor Robert Smith and councilmen Kabir Karriem, Bill Gavin and Charlie Box met with Lautzenhiser and other members of the board Monday afternoon to discuss the city school budget.
“We went down and told them where we were, how we got where we were and put several scenarios on the table,” Lautzenhiser said. “Basically, we”re continuing to work through this and still trying to find savings … We don”t know at this point what we”re going to do or even at what level we”re going to do it.”
The bulk of the board”s proposed budget — $22.44 million — is allocated for instruction of the district”s anticipated 4,500 students, and nearly $14 million will go toward support services, including school administration and board member salaries, business operations, transportation and other costs.
Some cost savings were found by eliminating the extended school year program at Sale and Stokes-Beard elementary schools, eliminating three teachers and one assistant principal, reducing maintenance and technology costs and making other cuts, Hughes said.
After listening to the presentation, local resident the Rev. James Samuel said he was confused.
“I am bewildered and put to sleep by all your numbers,” Samuel said. “Most of us have no idea what that is you just gave us. The bottom line is, you”re about to raise my taxes.”
Samuel called Columbus Middle School “somebody else”s dream,” referring to former CMSD Superintendent Del Phillips.
“You people — all due respect — have created a total mess, and you are out of control with the people who have to pay these taxes,” Samuel said. “I think you people see us as a bottomless pit of sheep, and any time you need a lamb chop, you can just pull one out.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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