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School budget on mend
No cuts foreseen this year
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For the first time in more than five years, the Dawson County Board of Education foresees no impending budget cuts.

While not official, the school board is projecting a nearly $33 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year. The upside to the increase from fiscal year 2014 is that the school system will be adding items back, not cutting, officials said.

Last year, the board voted to raise the millage rate by 1.7 mills to 17.246 mills. 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 2014 budget was set at $32 million, a decrease of $3 million from the previous year. The budget was approved with the expectation the tax digest would continue to drop, this time by about 9.4 percent.

Original projections showed that, had the board not raised the millage rate, the system would have been in the black through fiscal year 2014, before ending fiscal year 2015 with a $4 million deficit.

However, thanks to a returning tax digest and state funding, both fiscal years 2015 and 2016 are projected to end with positive fund balances.

"We're finally seeing the tax digest decrease in the value of our local 5 mills. It's back down to about $900,000, so that's helped us out." said Jamie Ulrich, the system's director of finance.

"Plus we've got the money that the governor has put back into education. Both of those items have really helped us out for the FY15 budgets. That's really made the difference."

Part of the return in funding comes from Gov. Nathan Deal's incentive plan to help state education, which put an additional $600,000 back into the local budget. That came on top of another $600,000 to help with rising employee insurance costs.

Ulrich said that the bottoming out of the digest and the money from the state has turned around projections for the coming years' budgets.

"With the digest finally flattening out, maybe we can start to regain some of the digest values," she said.

That would allow the school board to return all six furlough days to Dawson teachers, restoring a full school calendar of 180 days for students and 190 for teachers.

"It is something that we have wanted to be able to do since the first year, five years ago, when we had to take drastic measures to make our budget work," said Superintendent Keith Porter.

The board is also looking at returning some of the elementary schools' assistant principals, counselors and auxiliary staff.

"The budgets of the past five years have certainly presented many challenges, but the sacrifices and creativity of those with whom I work only served to increase my respect and appreciation for their resolve and abilities," Porter said. "From the beginning, they have taken the attitude that they would do whatever was necessary to serve the students with quality."

The return of budget finances and school support is something that is dear to Porter's heart, as it was under his tenure as superintendent that they were initially cut. Now, with his announced retirement, it's also something he'll be able to give back.

"I will retire knowing that we were able to maintain essential services that will allow our students to be successful in the future," he said. "Educational funding is still precarious at best, so the next few state budgets will be very important as to whether or not we can proclaim that we are in recovery, or we simply got a glimpse of recovery."

While this is only a preliminary budget, little change is expected leading up to a vote in July.