Two weeks after voting to delay a property tax increase, the Morgan County School Board is reconsidering. They have set a July 12 date to hold a public meeting, where they may vote to move forward with raising taxes as early as this November in order to build a contingency fund into the district’s budget.
In their last meeting, the board agreed to pull no more than $150,000 from the rainy day fund to balance the budget. Already, district officials see a need for more than that.
“That is beyond where I am willing to go personally,” Boardmember Bruce Galbraith said. “If we don’t address it, we are going to be below our safe zone. We are so close to our fingernail quick. We have no money to protect us when a crisis comes. As a board member, I don’t feel comfortable to not have funds to protect us in a disaster situation. The options aren’t there for us anymore. We need to review our position on our tax situation.”
Business Administrator D’Lynn Poll agreed. “You just can’t responsibly go into a fiscal year with a $13 million budget and no fund balance,” she said.
A handful of residents spoke in favor of raising taxes to benefit Morgan Schools at the board’s last meeting.
“I have felt that the school district has done a good job with cutting expenses left and right. Now I feel the board has bumped up against a situation where they have cut the expenses all they can, including borrowing from funds they aren’t meant to borrow from,” said resident Dick Morrin, who volunteers regularly at Mountain Green Elementary. “You’re not going to get any more out of the state or federal government. You are on a slippery slope. The board is putting a heavy burden on staff and students. Sooner or later you have to replace these funds you’ve been stealing from. I think you made a big mistake by not initiating tax increases this year and waiting until next year.”
Morrin is just one of many constituents who have approached Boardmember Jody Hipwell expressing their support of a tax increase, she said.
“We have to take care of our students,” resident Brenda Crossley said. “Sometimes we have to give up something to take care of our students.”
District employee Gina Stuart said compared to the last 27 years she has been in Morgan, teacher morale is at “rock bottom.”
Public support for a tax increase has been surprising, some board members said.
“It is reverse of what you would expect,” Galbraith said. “Usually you would be beat up for raising taxes.”
But not all input has been in support of a tax increase, Boardmember Niel Carrigan said. He said he has to carefully balance his duties on the board of representing students, their parents, district employees, and other residents, especially those on fixed incomes.
Board President Joey Skinner echoed those sentiments. “There is a time to raise taxes, but I personally think we have to cinch the belt a little bit longer,” Skinner said. “I know morale is tough. It is tough times. It hurts that we diminished our savings. It keeps me up at night.”
Galbraith said he is losing sleep over recent board decisions as well. “We took money from areas we felt we could cinch up,” he said. ”We didn’t take the easy route and increase taxes. We are trying to do the best we can.”
Just in the last two weeks, Poll said payroll expenditures have surfaced that she didn’t forecast for. It resulted in $900 in unexpected charges. At the same time, money received from the county for property taxes was $20,000 less than anticipated, Poll said.
“I can’t control that two teachers’ husbands lost their jobs, and now they want health insurance” through the district, Poll said. “I can’t control how much snow we have to remove. There are some things you can’t control.”
In the last month, two buses have broken down—also unexpected expenses, to a degree. District use of substitute teachers was above what was budgeted for as well.
But such occurrences aren’t the result of an inept administrator. Rather, it is a regular occurrence that usually goes unnoticed when the district operates with an adequate contingency fund.
“You have always had over-runs, and you were always able to cover those, because you’ve always had contingency funds,” Superintendent Ken Adams said. “There is plenty of blame to go around. Shoulder it together and go on.”
“We are getting bills rolling in that we can’t budget for,” Galbraith said. “We are too tight.”
To make matters worse, developers with lots that aren’t selling are delaying paying their property taxes. One-family homes are housing two families in these tough economic times, meaning there may be more school children to educate with the same property tax revenues.
In a letter addressed to the board, Adams and Poll warned that contingency funds are at “dangerously low levels,” and that the board may soon have no other recourse but to increase property taxes.
“It is a nightmare, extremely frustrating, just to keep our head above water and keep moving forward,” Adams said. “We have to be honest with each other and we’ve just got to deal with it.”