The Cartersville City School Board's first meeting of 2020 Monday night covered all the usual January housekeeping measures but also included a twist.
After the four school principals gave their monthly reports, President Kelley Dial read a 5½-page statement on behalf of all board members regarding their position on the potential increase in senior tax exemption and addressing comments made at a Dec. 17 informational meeting concerning the Bartow County School Board's support of the exemption.
"We did not coordinate this meeting nor were we asked to participate in or attend the meeting," she said. "We understand that our board was mentioned and discussed at the meeting, although the primary focus of the meeting was a potential increase of the senior tax exemption in Bartow County, not the city of Cartersville. This meeting and the comments made at it have caused confusion regarding this board’s position. This is unfortunate. We now wish to explain the current situation and our collective thoughts about increasing the existing senior tax exemption."
Dial explained that the school system receives state and federal tax dollars and Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds, which cannot be used for salaries or day-to-day operations, but the rest of the budget must come from property taxes.
She also said the board has reduced the millage rate to 14.576, "the lowest it has been in 18 years," and explained that the system's state funds are cut by the equivalent of 5 mills, which is used for equalization grants to help school districts "whose tax bases are not as robust."
"Bartow County Schools receive money from these equalization grants," she said. "The Cartersville City Schools do not."
Dial said city homeowners who are 65 or older may apply for a school tax exemption for the first $28,000 in assessed value of their home, but House Bill 684 calls for an additional exemption of 50% of the assessed value of any homestead owned by someone 65 or older, 75% for those 70 or older and 100% for those 80 and older.
"As community builders and advocates for our schools, we cannot support HB 684 as currently written," she said. "While students remain our top priority, we also take our stewardship of all tax dollars seriously. Our observation is that these priorities were not given enough thoughtful consideration and honest debate prior to the introduction of HB 684."
As a result, the board unanimously approved a resolution "opposing the specific wording of HB 684" last March, Dial said.
"The resolution was narrowly worded and addressed only the current wording of HB 684, not the larger concept of whether there should be a ballot question addressing an increase in the current senior exemption," she said. "It saddens us that our concerns were mischaracterized at the informational meeting."
If the bill is placed on the November ballot and approved by voters, it would "impact our system, the system we are charged with leading," Dial said.
"The bill was developed with only minimal communication with us and no conversation about the actual wording of the bill prior to it being filed," she said. "In our opinion, the bill was drafted hastily, without thoughtfully considering the long-term impact it could have on our school system. Furthermore, from our understanding, there was no consultation done with experts in the field of senior tax exemptions who could analyze the long-term effects of an increase in the current exemption. While we believe consensus on a ballot question could have been reached, consensus takes time and commitment to open dialogue."
The board rejects the idea of dipping into the district's reserves to handle shortfalls because those funds are being saved for future building projects, which will be paid for in cash "to the extent possible in order to further lesson the tax burden on all our citizens," Dial said, noting the system is "currently debt-free."
While the school district could handle a loss of funding from senior tax exemptions for the first few years, board members remember the tough time it had during the most recent recession.
"We feel the information being shared about senior tax exemptions stops in the present and doesn’t deeply look at the future, something we as a school board must do on a regular basis," Dial said. "From 2003 to 2018, the Cartersville School System’s funding from the Georgia General Assembly was reduced by a total of $22,094,851 in austerity reductions. The General Assembly could approve austerity cuts again in the future. Eventually, there will be a downturn in the economy, which is, by nature, cyclical, and the austerity reduction could return."
And the school district must continue funding public education "even when state funds fall short of what is expected," she said.
"Children still come to school during a recession," she said. "Funds are still required."
To cover any lost funds, board members would "need to make cuts in our system," the president said.
"We do not operate in excess so making cuts is not a wise decision because it will negatively impact our students and what we can provide for them," she said. "If we were to decrease the local supplement we pay our teachers — currently 17.5% of the state base — they would be negatively impacted while still being expected to provide superior instruction, and our ability to attract quality teachers would be lessened."
Dial said board members "do not run our schools like a factory."
"We reject the notion of schools as factories where students simply clock in and out and are treated as 'raw material' to be molded into a finished product," she said. "We do not believe in simply looking for the cheapest way to get students out of high school. We operate learning organizations where students receive the resources needed to reach their potential, whether that is in the classroom, on a stage, on an athletic field or all of the above. The return on the investment we make in students benefits everyone in our community. For years, previous school boards and the current board have operated our school system with no waste and conscientious spending, and our schools have thrived."
While the board is opposed to HB 684 "as currently written," the members' opposition is "not against the right to vote on a more thoughtful and researched proposal," Dial said.
"The fact that little dialogue took place with us in the development of a bill that will have an impact on the school system we are responsible for and the community we love is disheartening to us," she said. "We feel that a more deliberative and intentional process could produce a proposal that would benefit all seniors to some extent but would provide the most benefit to those who need it the most while still being mindful of the impact on all taxpayers, young and old."
Dial said the current senior exemption costs the school system $539,516 or roughly .51 mills.
"We believe a more workable and equitable proposal for the voters’ consideration is one that would no more than double the current exemption and would cost the school system approximately another half mill," she said. "As a board, we believe we could adjust to an increased exemption that would decrease our current tax dollars by half a mill or less. If proposed legislation along those lines develops and includes a five-year sunset for an evaluation of the effects, our board could support that more thoughtful and equitable proposal being placed on the ballot for an ultimate decision by voters of all ages in the city of Cartersville."
During the public comment portion of the meeting, two residents addressed the board about the senior tax exemption — one for it, one against it.
"You've already stated your position on House Bill 684; however, I urge the board to reconsider and support the senior exemption and let us seniors vote on House Bill 684," Ed Rock, a 10-year resident of the city, said. "In my opinion, let our democratic form of government work, and let the people of Cartersville decide on House Bill 684."
But former school board member Louis Tonsmeire Sr. said investing in quality education is a "benefit to all of us."
"It's a benefit to the community," he said. "It's a benefit to students and to adults. We need to remind ourselves that we ourselves went to school, those expenses paid by adults prior to our going to school, so we must pay it forward as somebody else did for us previously."
After Dial's statement, the board voted 7-0 to re-elect Dial, Vice President Travis Popham and Secretary Pat Broadnax to their positions for the 2020 calendar year.
Dial then appointed members to the seven committees and reappointed last year's chairperson for each: Tim Chason, finance; Louise Panter, technology; Broadnax, policy; Carolyn Johnson, personnel and extracurricular; Kathi White, curriculum; Popham, building and grounds; and Popham, legal.
The following schedule for the regular monthly board meetings in 2020 was unanimously approved: Feb. 10, March 9, April 20, May 11, June 8, July 13, Aug. 10, Sept. 14, Oct. 8 (combined work session and business meeting), Nov. 9, Dec. 14 and Jan. 11, 2021.
Meetings will be at 6 p.m. in the central office board room at 15 Nelson St.
Work sessions will be scheduled for 6 p.m. the Thursday preceding the regular board meeting.
Board members also unanimously approved:
— Purchasing furniture for the high school from Ernie Morris Enterprises Inc. in Bushnell, Florida, at a cost of $210,404. The purchase comes from The Interlocal Purchasing System Contract using SPLOST funds.
— A rental request from Crosspoint City Church to use the elementary school grounds and parking lot for overflow parking at church services from Jan. 5 through June 28 at a cost of $25 per Sunday, for a total of $675.
— Overnight and out-of-state trips for the high school's Y-Club to attend the Georgia United Nations Assembly in Atlanta March 1-3 and the high school's Cahisco staff to attend the JEA Spring National Student Journalism Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, April 16-18.
— Paying school board members a per diem, in lieu of expenses, for regular, called and work session meetings and committee meetings.
—The continued appointment of Cartersville attorney Harry B. White as legal counsel for the school board during 2020.
— Membership of the school system in the Northwest Georgia Regional Educational Services Association for the 2020-21 school year and the superintendent being the system's representative to RESA's board of control.
— Authorizing school board members to attend Georgia School Boards Association and National School Boards Association conferences and training sessions as official representatives of the board during 2020.
— The continued establishment of the Sex Education/AIDS Prevention Education Advisory Committee and membership on an as-needed basis for 2020.
— Ratified an agreement for King & Spalding LLP in Atlanta to serve as counsel to the school system in connection with renewing its SPLOST, not to exceed $20,000.
Board members recognized Director of Maintenance, Facilities and Safety Ken Paige as the Matthew Hill-Michael Dean HEARTS Employee of the Month for January.
He received a $50 gift card to Appalachian Grill from New Frontier of Bartow County Inc. and had his name added to the perpetual plaque displayed at the school board office.