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Tax hike proposed to cover Forsyth County school system budget

FORSYTH COUNTY -- Both teacher salaries and Forsyth County school taxes are poised to increase next school year, as the annual budget for 2016 was presented Thursday to the Board of Education.


The 2 percent pay raise, step increases and cost-of-living adjustments to all eligible employees was a highlight from the proposed $345.4 million budget Superintendent Jeff Bearden noted keeps the district competitive with others in the area.


If approved in June — before the 2016 fiscal year begins on July 1 — spending on instruction, which includes teacher salaries and benefits, is expected to increase by 7.5 percent from 2015.


This would account for nearly 74 percent of the district’s annual expenditures —Bearden said the national standard is 65 percent.


The current year’s budget gave a step increase and got rid of three remaining furlough days. In 2014, pay was increased by 2 percent with a 1 percent increase the year prior.


In addition to salary increases, funding 124 new positions — including 94 teachers, 12 bus drivers, 10 paraprofessionals and five assistant principals — will cost $9.1 million in salaries and benefits.


Pay rates for substitute teachers was proposed to increase to $85 across the board from $65 for non-certified subs and $75 for those certified.


Even with these increases, Bearden praised the tentative budget for expecting revenues to exceed expenditures by $10.5 million.


The budget calls for $345.4 million in revenues, an increase over last year by $36.3 million, while expenditures ($335 million) are expected to increase $22.3 million from 2015.


With a beginning projected 2016 fund balance, or reserves, of $39.6 million, the balance should grow to $50.1 million by the end of FY16, the first time it will grow in about four years, Bearden said.


This final number is more than 15 percent of the district’s expected expenditures.


Dan Jones, the district’s chief financial officer, said it is the system’s policy to be at or above 15 percent, though it hasn’t been in years. Meeting that threshold will help bond ratings and make funding capital projects cheaper.


Part of the increase in revenue may be attributed to a proposed increase in the millage rate from 16.3 mills to 17.3, an increase that has not happened in four years.


Jones said a projected $153.4 million may be the result of the increase — $23.8 million more than last year – though the tax digest presented on Thursday will change before being finalized.


“Until we get a final tax digest, it’s hard to say what the number will be,” Jones said. “I expect [the digest] to go down some, but I don’t know how much yet.”


Jones said he has not made calculations yet for what this increase will translate to per average household since the unknowns are still too high.


The district is hoping added revenues will offset an expected $10 million lost due to austerity reductions.


This money is lost when the district does not receive the full funding it is supposed to from state QBE earnings, which is based on student enrollment.


Since austerity reductions began in 2003, the school system has added 23,659 students and lost $158 million.


Nearly half of the $6 million they are expected to get back from a decrease in these reductions will be spent on funding health care plans for non-certified employees — bus drivers and cafeteria workers — no longer covered by the state.


The board is expected to vote on a tentative budget at its meeting May 21, so it can be advertised before a final decision in June.