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Fulton School Board gives preliminary OK to 2022 budget

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ATLANTA — There is a sense of optimism in the Fulton County School System as it looks to fiscal year 2022 in positive economic shape despite months of disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers and staff are set to get a raise, along with a one-time bonus, the millage rate will not rise, and the district’s “rainy day” fund will remain intact.

“In November 2020 the Fulton County School Board provided a budget direction by setting budget parameters [to follow],” said chief financial officer Marvin Dereef. “My hope is that it is clear we complied with the parameters.”

The constraints included finding alternative funding sources, allocating at least 75 percent of the general fund to schools, provide a millage rollback to revenue-neutral, increasing efficiencies, maintaining competitive compensation for staff and keeping fund balance at a minimum of two months of operating costs.

On May 13, the school board gave tentative approval of the 2022 fiscal year general fund budget of $1.1 billion. The board will formally adopt the budget on June 8. The general fund budget, which covers all school-based operations, is a $30 million increase from the current year’s budget.

The bump in the budget will be cover a 2 percent pay increase for all employees, along with a step increase for eligible employees based on years of service.

“Fundamentally we believe that compensation is a ‘mission critical’ lever in retaining and getting top talent,” Chief Financial Officer Ron Wade said.

The goal is not to be the highest-paying district in the metro area, Wade said, but in the top three.

The funds to cover the raises comes from the biggest source of “alternative funding sources,” which is the federal government. The current fiscal year included only $700,000 in federal funding. The 2022 spending plan expects $13.8 million in federal funding.

Over the last year Fulton County Schools has been the recipient of nearly $244 million — the equivalent of $2,700 per student — over three rounds of federal stimulus funding beginning with the Trump administration and continuing under President Joe Biden.

The funds were to help school districts weather the pandemic storm and came with limited restrictions.

In addition to compensation, Fulton County Schools is using stimulus funds on mitigating learning loss, summer school programs and ensuring safe environments in schools.

Despite the increased federal funding and slight increases to local and state tax revenues, the FY22 budget still has a nearly $29 million deficit, Dereef said. That gap will be closed by a drawdown of the district’s healthy reserve funds.

However, Dereef is confident those reserve funds will serve only as placeholder to balance the budget, and will likely not be pulled.

“Even though we are budgeting to use fund balance, we don’t necessarily need it,” Dereef explained. He noted the budget has a built-in five percent contingency for expenditures.

Currently Fulton County Schools has $258 million in its reserve funds, which is more than the targeted two months of expenses.

While there have been some mention of lowering the millage rate from its present 17.796 mils, the tentative budget keeps that rate unchanged. Dereef noted Fulton Schools’ rate is the lowest millage among the five large metro districts.

One mill brings in $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. In Georgia, a property’s taxable value equals 40 percent of its appraised — or real — value. A home with a real value of $100,000, for example, would have a taxable value of $40,000.

Currently Fulton County Schools does not have a senior citizen exemption for school taxes, but Dereef said he expects that to be in place in the near future.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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