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After debate, Clarke County Board of Education passes budget and property tax cut

Taylor Gerlach

The Clarke County Board of Education approved its budget for next year, but almost stumbled when approving a decrease to the property tax rate.

Board members passed the district’s $189 million budget by a vote of 6 – 2 at a Thursday night meeting, but passing the budget is only half of the process. Board members also need to approve the millage rate – essentially the property tax rate for school funding – as well. That’s because the budget and the millage rate are closely linked; property taxes comprise a big part of school district revenue, and the budget was built – and passed – with an 18.8 mil millage rate.

But some board members balked when the vote for the new millage rate, the lowest in half a decade, came up. The initial vote ended in a 4 – 4 tie, meaning that the move failed. Discussion ensued, with some board members arguing in favor of a higher millage rage of 19 mils. The higher rate would mean about a million dollars less in the school district’s coffers – a yearly savings of about $30 for a house worth $150,000.

Board President Lakeisha Gantt was one of the members who opposed the 18.8 mil rate. She brought up concerns about whether it would leave the district with enough money to meet its promise of a wage increase for the lowest paid district employees.

"I can be persuaded, but I really want to be sure that we are not putting ourselves in a place where we don't have the money that we need to have to get people up to $15.00 an hour," Gantt said.

Board member Linda Davis countered that district staff had crunched the numbers and that the district would be able to meet its goals.

"We have strong recommendations from our finance department, [which] has done an excellent job of calculating where we are and what we can and cannot afford," Davis argued. "And so I am concerned that to not vote for this reduction for our taxpayers who have supported us all of this time, especially when this tiny little bubble of a boom economy, is kind of saying to them that you know we, we don't really care. I would like to see us rollback this to the 18.8 that the budget was built on, so that we can move forward with showing appreciation to our community for their support over this long haul."

A last-minute change to the millage rate would open a Pandora’s box of complications. In addition to having to rewrite the budget to account for greater revenue, there was also a question of whether the district would have to hold new public hearings on the changed rate. And, as district staff pointed out, the school board has to finalize and pass the millage rate before the ACC Mayor and Commission meets on Tuesday.

After some discussion, a second vote to pass the 18.8 mil rate took place, and opponents threw in the towel, passing the motion unanimously.

School board members also debated a proposed equity policy for the district. That new policy mostly addresses how to find and combat bias in curriculum, textbooks, and programs. While board members seemed to agree with the intent of the new policy, they spent a long time parsing out the superintendent’s role in implementing the policy, and whether the proposed policy holds the superintendent accountable for results. Board President Lakeisha Gantt said that it didn’t.

'I think it is aspirational, but I don't think it's practical, and neither do I think there are any teeth to it," Gantt said.

Board member Nicole Hull responded that accountability would come in the superintendent’s evaluation.

"Making sure that that superintendent has the responsibility to make sure that these things happen gives that superintendent an evaluation criteria that they know he or she will be evaluated on," she said.

Board member Kirrena Gallagher was skeptical about the evaluation process, however.

"We don't have an evaluation process that has been working," Gallagher said. "We don't have an accountability process that has even been put in place. At some point we will have to look at ourselves and say we're not doing a good job at evaluation or accountability."

No vote was taken on the measure, and the proposed policy will be released for public comment.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.
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