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Baker School Board again delays budget decision

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

NEWTON, Ga. -- Baker County School System Superintendent Tommy Rogers looked like a lawyer presenting his case when he addressed the district's School Board Tuesday night as more than 35 community members sat restlessly in Baker County High School's library.

The retiring superintendent urged the Board of Education members to approve the Fiscal Year 2011 budget for the small district. After having 420 students enrolled last year, 326 students are currently enrolled for the 2010-11 school year, a school official reported.

"What you got to do as a board is make a decision for this school system," Rogers said. "I can work till December, if you want it. I can make this work for you without borrowing money."

Large crowds have been common at recent Baker County School Board meetings. The school system's millage rate may increase from 12.88 to as high as 16.889 mills under one of the four proposed FY 2011 budgets that were distributed to the five board members about midway through Tuesday's nearly two-hour meeting. Audience members could only listen to board members discuss details of the proposals since no additional copies of the proposals were made available.

Each of the four budget proposals come in at $3,059,253, which is $1,022,817 less than last year's $4,082,070 budget. The amount of reserves remaining and the millage rates are two of the key differences between the proposals.

The first proposal has a negative $238,439 left in reserves at a millage rate of 12.889. The second has negative $233,220 in reserve and a 12.920 millage rate. The third has $43,690 in reserve and a 14.889 millage rate. The fourth has $325,820 in reserve and a 16.889 millage rate.

Because second-year board members Carrie Hall, Bonnie Hudson and

Janet Anderson requested that Rogers go line-by-line over the budget proposals, the board didn't vote to adopt an FY 11 budget at Tuesday's meeting. Instead, the three board members, plus veteran board member Myrlene Sheffield, will attend a budget work session today at 6:30 p.m. in Rogers' office.

"I want to make them clear on everything as possible," he said after the meeting.

Rogers said he didn't know when the budget would be adopted, but time is quickly running out for the school system as school starts Sept. 1.

Hall said her uneasiness with the budget comes from not being able to decipher the format for which the budget is presented by the district in handouts to the board. However, the format has been the same for more than 20 years.

"From what I hear, the format it is in, they just don't understand it," school system attorney Henry Williams said to Rogers. "It's like giving them a legal document and saying it's self-explanatory. Maybe the board needs more than is required. Maybe it's above their head. But if it's above their head, it serves no purpose. What I'm saying is this is not a manageable situation."

Rogers appeared stunned at the revelation that the majority of the School Board was, using another Williams' analogy, "lost in translation" when it came to understanding how to read the budget handouts.

"I apologize," Rogers said. "I didn't know they didn't understand it."

Williams warned the board that the longer it waits to adopt a budget, the more difficult things will become.

"The budget needs to be passed by Sept. 1. I really thought a vote on the budget would've been passed tonight," he said. "... Until you get a millage (rate set), the tax bills can't come out and you can't get the tax receipts in December. If the board can't do better than this, you might as well tell the state to come in and take over.

"Each day you're getting into quicksand."

Rogers agreed: "You're in more danger than you think."

After Williams' and Rogers' dire predictions, Hall brought out an older budget proposal and proceeded to ask questions from it. Williams quickly told Hall that she needed to only look at the new proposals since the older ones weren't on the table any longer.

Board Chair Grace Miller, who has served for 34 years, said the current budget stalemate crisis baffles her.

"We were hoping to pass the budget tonight, but we didn't. It's sad," Miller said. "This is the first time we've been without a budget this long. We passed it last year and didn't have any problems. I don't know why we can't get one passed."