The Forsyth County Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the district’s 2022-23 budget and millage rate at a called meeting on Tuesday, June 28.
Before the vote Tuesday night, the board held a second round of public hearings for community members to share their final thoughts on the proposed budget of $578,498,654 and millage rate of 17.3 mills.
Initial public hearings were held the week before Tuesday’s meeting, with eight community members sharing concerns that keeping the millage rate at 17.3 mills for the eighth consecutive year would significantly increase property taxes as home values have skyrocketed across Forsyth County and the U.S. in the past year.
What the community had to say
Three other residents shared similar concerns with the board during the second round of hearings, each of them asking the board to roll back the millage rate and find areas in the budget where the school system may be able to cut back on spending.
“I know this is an issue that is very concerning to a lot of people in our community,” said Mendy Moore, who spoke during the millage rate hearing. “They got their tax assessments recently, opened that bill and were shocked.”
Moore said that while property values averaged at a 20-30% increase this year, the assessment on her home increased by 43% from last year. She told the board she and her family are used to budgeting for a small increase in taxes every year, but this significant jump is too much for them.
“My employer didn’t pay me 43% more this year,” Moore said. “My husband’s employer did not pay him 43% more this year. It is a very tough time to be asking for this type of increase, too, with the economy the way that it is.
“We’re all trying to cut back. We’re all trying to live within our means. It seems like a very reckless move for the Board of Education to increase their budget so drastically during this type of economic times when everyone else is being asked to tighten their belt [and] cut back on something.”
Another speaker, Todd Peek, said the potential increase in property taxes could drive out community members who have called Forsyth County home for many years, reminding the board that there are no relief options for those who cannot pay for the increases.
“Voting ‘yes’ on this budget is a life-changing decision,” Peek said.
Deciding on the budget
Before voting on the budget and millage rate, however, the board members addressed some of the concerns they have heard from the community over the past few weeks.
The board’s Vice Chairwoman Kristin Morrissey explained to the crowd that, despite the $58.4 increase in the budget from last year, the board is cutting down on costs. She said the main reason there seems to be a large increase in funding and expenditures in this year’s budget is because the district faced significant austerity cuts in funding on the state level the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is the first year after two years of [the pandemic] we were fully funded from the state,” Morrissey said.
Hearing from community members, Morrissey said many have also compared Forsyth County Schools to other metro Atlanta school systems that have received millions more in federal COVID-19 relief funding over the past two years.
For example, she said Gwinnett County’s school system received a total of $434 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funding while FCS received $20 million during the same period. CARES Act funding allotments were based on the percentage of Title I funding school districts received the previous year.
“That's money that they’ve been able to use to hire teachers, to do raises, to do bonuses, to buy equipment, buy furniture, whatever they needed to do,” Morrissey said. “And we did not have that, so we're competing against these counties that were given these large sums of funds.”
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden, along with BOE members, have stressed over the past few weeks that offering competitive salaries and benefits for district employees is key to keeping schools staffed and retaining quality teachers for local students.
The increased 2022-23 budget aims to help with this by raising employee salaries and the district’s minimum wage while adding in new positions to keep up with enrollment growth. The majority of the district’s budget is spent on employee salaries and benefits.
Finding other solutions
With these issues in mind, Lindsey Adams, District 5 board member, said that it would be difficult to find a solution to rising property values by rolling back the millage rate and limiting funding to schools.
“Rolling back the millage rate, that would decrease taxes, yes. But it would also squeeze the school system and their ability to meet the [needs of students],” Adams said. “I think there [are] definitely ways that we need to explore the taxes here in this county, but it's going to take more than just a simple solution of rolling back the millage rate.”
Tom Cleveland, District 2 board member, agreed that there are better solutions for helping to bring down taxes in the county, and he emphasized that he and the board are willing to work with other agencies in the county to find those solutions and offer relief to taxpayers while prices continue to rise at the gas pump and in grocery stores.
Cleveland and Adams both suggested having a conversation with other agencies about impact fees, which he said they have discussed for years to help fund growth in the county.
Impact fees are one-time payments that property developers would make to the local government that are meant to offset the financial impact they have on public infrastructure such as schools and roads.
“We're willing to talk about a lot of those methods to hopefully ease the change as property value goes through the roof,” Cleveland said.
After addressing the concerns, the board made its final vote of 4-0 to approve of the budget and millage rate for the district, with BOE Chairman Wes McCall absent from the meeting.“I know it's [a] big decision,” Morrissey said. “It's not something we've taken lightly. And I think next year will be a whole different situation …. It’s the best we can do.”