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Board of Education passes tentative budget
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The Dawson County School System has a tentative budget set for the 2016 fiscal year, despite having little to no input from other entities regarding changing taxes for the next year.

"We have budgeted a 2 percent increase in the tax digest this year," said Dawson County School System Director of Financial Services Jamie Ulrich. "We haven't received a preliminary tax digest yet, but I think that will be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully, the preliminary number will be better than 2 percent."

The 2015 fiscal year is expected to end with $7.5 million in the ending fund balance. The 2016 budget is tentatively set for $36.4 million, ending at $5.4 million at the end of the 2016 fiscal year.

Ulrich said this year's budget includes more improvements for teacher pay.

"Our employees are back to where we were before we started the cuts [in 2009] with the 2015 budget," she said. "This budget will be adding 2 percent pay to all employees and adding the step raise. In the past, the salary schedule topped out at 21+ years, so we're adding a 23+ years step."

These increases come on top of last year's additions, which included a 1 percent increase to the local supplement teachers receive and a return of a full calendar in FY 2015. The school system will also be adding new growth positions with new teachers.

The system is also getting a break from the state yet again, with nearly $580,000 being returned to the system in austerity funds.

"The state took $1.5 million in austerity that we earned last fiscal year," Ulrich said. "This year it's right at $900,000. That is a substantial decrease from what they took in 2015."

The state is also taking less from its local 5 mills.

"We went down $136,000 taken from our local [5 mill] fair share, as well," Ulrich said. "That's still trailing with the digest by about 2 years. That should start trickling up next year."

The "fair share" is part of the state's Quality Basic Education Funding, or QBE, program.

The program automatically takes 5 mills from the system's tax revenue and redistributes the funds to other school systems in the state that are not as "property wealthy," such as Gwinnett County, despite the county's economic income.

The formula has not been updated since it was introduced in 1985.

However, with all of the good in the budget comes the bad, as well.

"The state only pays for our certified employees' insurance," Ulrich said. "This does not include the $150 per month per person rate for our classified employees. The state doesn't fund any of those. It's on the local system to pay for that."

A certified employee includes teachers, nurses and administrators, whereas paraprofessionals, lunchroom staff and custodians, among others, are considered classified employees.

The system's local funding is determined by a millage rate, part of a formula used to calculate property taxes, where one mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value.

The school board voted in 2013 to raise the millage to 17.246. The millage rate was not raised last year.

While this budget is still tentative and numbers could change, Ulrich said that a permanent budget would be set by the end of June.

"We are required by the state of Georgia to have an approved budget by June 30," she said. "We have a board meeting scheduled on June 2, but we will have to schedule another meeting for the end of June."

Ulrich said she expects the tentative tax digest to be released by the end of May. From there, the numbers will be examined and adjusted accordingly before it is presented to the board for final approval at the end of June.