By Gracie Bonds Staples
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In a time of program cuts and bigger class sizes, the Fulton County school board approved its first tax rate increase in more than five years.
The board voted 6-1 to increase the millage rate 1 mill from 17.502 to 18.502. The 2.35 percent increase, needed to balance the Fulton County school district’s 2010-2011 budget, could mean an additional $58 for the owner of a $150,000 home.
"It depends on the valuation set by the county tax assessor," said Robert Morales, the district's chief financial officer. Because property values have gone down about 4 percent, Morales said some homeowners may not see an increase in their actual tax bill.
In fact, he said, even with the rate increase, the school system would likely get $15 million less in revenue -- $535 million, down from $550 million last school year.
Even with the increase, School Superintendent Cindy Loe said, the county will still have the lowest millage rate of any large metro Atlanta school system.
“Fulton board members have demonstrated a strong history of fiscal responsibility and for many years have kept the millage rate steady and over the last eight years actually rolled it back during stronger economic times,” Loe said.
At hearings Tuesday, Bruce Piefke, a resident of Sandy Springs since 1960 and father of two daughters in the school system, thanked board members and said he supports the increase.
“The stories always seem to be about how government doesn’t work,” said Piefke, a self-described fiscal conservative. “This is a good story about government doing its job.”
He said that by the time his daughters graduate high school, the county will have spent $226,356 to help educate them.
“To me that’s a good deal, a good value for our community,” he said.
Although parents for months have called for the millage increase, Piefke was the first to express his support during the poorly attended hearings.
Several Sandy Springs residents, including Mayor Eva Galambos, registered their opposition to the increase during last week’s hearing.
"I do not think, in this economic climate, it makes sense for any governmental entity to raise taxes," Galambos told the board.
Because of decreased state funding and local property taxes, Loe said that the school system faced a nearly $100 million funding gap.
She proposed increasing the millage rate to prevent another $28 million in cuts that she said would’ve impacted the district’s staff even more.Piefke said raising the millage rate to maintain the value of his children’s education is worth the sacrifice.
“Fulton County is the school system that all other counties aspire to,” he said. “We should be proud of our school system and support it. One mill is reasonable to maintain the high quality that we have become accustomed to.”
Chris Durham of Atlanta also expressed his gratitude for the board’s work but said he opposed the increase. “I don’t have additional funds to look to pay,” he said. “Many of my neighbors have said the same thing.”
Early in the budget process, parents and school employees called for the tax increase in hopes that it would save in cuts in other areas, namely the district's popular elementary school band and orchestra program and cuts to school social workers and counselors.
The board voted, however, to accept Loe's recommendation to convert the district’s elementary band and orchestra program into a fee-based after-school program.
Other cost-cutting measures include increasing class sizes, reducing the school calendar from 180 to 177 days, reducing central office operating costs by 10 percent and requiring all employees to take three furlough days.