The Forsyth County Board of Education is getting a head start on discussing the school district’s 2024 budget to find ways to keep up with growth while easing pressure on taxpayers.
All of the current and incoming board members met alongside Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden on Thursday, Dec. 1, for a called meeting where each member expressed their ideas and expectations for the next budget.
“This now gives time early enough so that the superintendent, deputy superintendent and CFO can all come together now with staff and say, ‘Here are our expectations going forward,’” Chairman Wes McCall said.
Before, McCall said Bearden and his team have always worked on the budget based on the board’s past expectations. Now that the economy is changing, however, board members want to find ways to change the budget to benefit taxpayers while maintaining quality education.
This discussion comes in light of budget hearings in June in which several community members asked the board to lower the millage rate to help property owners. For 2023, the board decided to keep the millage rate the same for the eighth consecutive year.
That could change, however, in 2024 as Tom Cleveland, District 3 representative, and other members said they hope to minimize expenditures by keeping their cost per student the same.
Cleveland said the district saw a rare increase in its cost per student this past year that was “warranted” as the district focused on providing student resources and increasing staff pay to remain competitive with neighboring districts that received millions more in federal COVID relief funding.
But by taking a step back this year, Bearden said the district could keep the cost per student the same with a maximum 5% increase in expenditures.
“That’s if you build in student growth, another thousand kids, and then you have to hire teachers to educate those kids and the support staff around them,” Bearden said.
He and his team also discussed adding in a 1-2% Cost of Living Adjustment for all employees, which is included in that 5% increase.
“I’m OK with that because of what you did this year,” Bearden told the board. “You gave teachers a $4,000 raise coming into the new school year. They’re going to get [a] supplement in December …. And I really do believe if we had that 1-2% COLA, our employees overall would be satisfied because we are now competitive.”
Bearden noted that the board will continue to discuss this option as it is able to better account for factors like inflation and revenue. McCall also said he wants the board to discuss how it can change the fund balance moving forward.
The district’s fund balance allows it to pull funding to cover revenue shortfalls. Bearden said the fund balance is especially needed in July-October when property taxes are not collected.
About eight years ago, the board increased the millage rate from 16.3 to 17.3 to be able to maintain a fund balance of 15% and earn a AAA bond rating, which allows the district a better rate on bonds for capital projects.
Bearden said earning that rating saved taxpayers more in the long run after voters approved a bond in 2018 to build new schools.
But with no new capital projects on the horizon, McCall and Bearden suggested taking another look at the millage rate and fund balance as they said “you don’t necessarily need it at 15%.”
If the board ultimately decided to keep the fund balance at 15%, however, McCall said the district could also hold the funds until it knows if revenues will be above expenditures and use it to provide another stipend for district employees.
“That’s something we’ll talk about as time goes on,” Bearden said.
Kristin Morrissey, District 2, and Darla Light, District 4, said they would like to see the budget align with the district’s strategic plan and include an outline of changes to make it easier to understand for community members.
“Sometimes people perceive that, ‘Oh, that position was hidden here,’ and ‘We didn’t see that,’” Light said. “[There should be] a summary for somebody like me who wants the big picture and doesn’t want to add up every number and look at and know.”
Mike Valdes, incoming District 5 representative taking over for Morrissey, said he would like to also interact more with the community to meet its needs and answer questions about possible homestead exemptions and the millage rate.
Earlier this year, the district created a Citizens Finance Committee made up of local citizens with experience in finance.
That committee will work with district leaders by offering suggestions on how the district can be financially efficient. Bearden said the committee has met twice.
“We are always trying to be as transparent as we can be, so to have a group of financial experts in our community look at what we’re doing …. not asking them to rubber stamp, but to look at it and ask for recommendations, [has been good for us].”