School Board president Kelley Dial read the following at the Board of Education business meeting Monday night:
We value exceptional public education. We cherish each student and employee of the Cartersville City Schools. We strive to act as thoughtful stewards of this unique community’s children and tax dollars.
Together we comprise a seven-member, nonpartisan board elected by the citizens of Cartersville and tasked with continuing the proud tradition of the Cartersville City Schools that began in 1888. We view ourselves as community builders and advocates for our students. The 4689 students currently enrolled are our focus and priority. Each of them hold a piece of our future.
Our board reflects the diversity of our city. While we come from different backgrounds and professions individually, we each serve to make our community better by insuring a relevant, seamless, and meaningful education where the needs of each student are considered. We strive for collective wisdom. 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. Rather, we see our schools (Kids & Company Pre-K, Cartersville Primary School, Cartersville Elementary School, Cartersville Middle School, and Cartersville High School) as learning organizations where students create, analyze, understand, and remember information well beyond the date of any standardized test. We are not motivated by personal agendas, political power or influence, or personal attention. We are motivated by what we feel is most beneficial to our students, teachers, staff, and community.
Over the past year, we have received occasional requests for our thoughts regarding an increase in the existing senior tax exemption. However, we have heard from only a few of the citizens of Cartersville regarding an increase. On December 17, 2019 an informational meeting was held at the Clarence Brown Center regarding this issue. We did not coordinate this meeting nor were we asked to participate in or attend the meeting. 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.
The Cartersville City Schools receive both state and federal tax dollars. These partially fund our school system. We also receive SPLOST dollars based on the extra penny of sales tax approved by the voters. Bartow County SPLOST funds are divided between the City and County school systems (based on enrollment) and may only be used for specific limited purposes – building projects, other capital improvements, and debt reduction, to name a few. SPLOST funds cannot be used to pay staff or for day-to-day operations. The rest of the funds needed to operate the school system come from local property taxes.
We are mindful of keeping the millage rate as low as possible while living up to the high expectations the community has for their schools. Our current millage rate for school taxes is 14.576, the lowest it has been in 18 years. State law prohibits school tax millage from going over 20 mills (unless authorized by the Legislature). In addition, The Cartersville City Schools’ state funds are reduced by the equivalent of 5 mills (referred to as the local fair share) before we receive them. These withheld funds are distributed to other school systems whose tax bases are not as robust. These funds are referred to as equalization grants. Bartow County Schools receive money from these equalization grants. The Cartersville City Schools do not.
HB 684 was filed in 2019 during the first year of a 2-year legislative session. HB 655, while similar, addresses only the Bartow County Schools’ tax exemption and has nothing to do with the Cartersville City Schools. Currently, homeowners in the City of Cartersville who are 65 or older may apply for an exemption from school taxes for the first $28,000 in assessed value of their home. HB 684 would, in addition to that exemption, provide for an additional exemption of 50% of the assessed value of any homestead owned by someone 65 or older (up to an assessed value of $500,000). The proposed additional exemption would increase to 75% for those 70 or older and would then increase to a full exemption for those 80 and over.
As community builders and advocates for our schools, we cannot support HB 684 as currently written. 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. Because of this, in March 2019 we unanimously approved a resolution opposing the specific wording of HB 684. 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. It saddens us that our concerns were mischaracterized at the informational meeting. Undoubtedly HB 684, if put on the ballot and approved, would impact our system, the system we are charged with leading. 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. 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.
For the last six years, we have approved a full roll back of the millage rate for all our taxpayers. Simply put, this means that as the tax digest increased (and the value of a mill rose), we rolled back our millage rate and did not take advantage of that increase and unduly burden our taxpayers. Our situation may not always allow a full roll back but we commit ourselves to doing it when possible. Our system was forced to make major cuts during the great recession and operated leanly during those years. Some of these cuts remain as we continue endeavoring to operate efficiently while providing quality educational opportunities for our students and supporting our staff. Our millage rate is at an 18-year low, evidence that we are committed to rolling back when we can as this positively impacts all taxpayers regardless of age or income level. A low millage rate coupled with our tradition of excellence also helps attract and keep industry, businesses of all sizes, and families to our community, further expanding our tax base.
We support the current approved senior tax exemption that applies to the first $28.000 of assessed value at age 65. We are opposed to HB 684 because we do not feel its structure is workable and we feel its impact on our system in the future would be too great. We feel that we must be strategically mindful in looking at any potential increase in the senior exemption for the voters to consider. Many want to compare us to Cobb, Paulding, and Cherokee Counties but we do not believe anyone has consulted school officials in those systems to see how they have been impacted. What has happened to their millage rates? How has their tax base changed? How is their tax base unique? These are important questions when making comparisons.
Any increase in the senior tax exemption will cause an eventual increase in our millage rate that will, in turn, increase taxes on those property owners (both individuals and businesses) who do not receive an exemption. It is important to look at the effect of providing an entitlement to a limited segment of the community. An increase in the exemption has a negative effect on the single parent who is raising his or her children on their own and needs every extra penny to help maintain his or her household and put food on the table. It has a negative effect on young families with two parents working full time to make ends meet who still want their children to have money for the book fair. It has a negative effect on businesses who provide a multitude of employment opportunities in our town and support the schools in a variety of ways. The education of children is and should be a priority for the whole community as a well-educated work-force is a benefit to everyone and helps our community remain thriving and vibrant. We educate the young people who will eventually provide a myriad of services to our senior citizens.
It has been suggested that we dip into our reserves to handle any shortfall. While that is a short term solution, we have these reserves for a reason. One reason we carry a reserve is to avoid the need for TANs (tax anticipation notes) which increase costs to taxpayers. We require a balance equivalent to three months of operating funds so we do not have to borrow money through the use of TANs (and pay interest on that money) before our property tax revenues come in each fall. Also, we have funds we hold onto in anticipation of future building projects. Our schools are full, particularly the high school. Our student population has grown by 10% in the last 5 years. As we spend time thoughtfully considering future building projects, it is our desire to pay for these projects with cash to the extent possible in order to further lesson the tax burden on all our citizens. While bonds will likely be needed at some point to accomplish what is needed, it is our stated desire to use as little bond money as possible since bonds are expensive and, again, result in us paying interest to other entities with taxpayer money. Because of wise financial management and with the help of our SPLOST funds, our system is currently debt free.
If we see an increase in the tax exemption for a few and we do not increase our millage rate to offset the loss of funds or dip into our reserves to cover the lost funds, we would need to make cuts in our system. We remain confident in our budget, our budget process, and the professionalism of our employees. 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. If we were to decrease the local supplement we pay our teachers (currently 17.5 percent 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. In a world where many of our teachers still spend personal funds on extra items for their classroom, we do not see the wisdom in asking them to sustain their personal households on less income. Regarding teacher salaries, we appreciate Governor Kemp and the General Assembly recognizing our deserving teachers with a pay increase last year. For each teacher receiving the $3,000 increase last year, the Cartersville School Board chose to add an additional $542 in local supplement pay in order to remain competitive and attract qualify educators. This investment has shown results as we see many new teachers aspiring to work in our system and as we retain excellent professionals already employed by us.
As previously mentioned, we do not run our schools like a factory. 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.
Are our schools perfect? Certainly not, this board and the entire staff of the Cartersville City Schools are committed to working every day within our means to reach all students. By becoming a Charter System, we have opened up opportunities for flexibility and creativity in using our resources. We continue to see student growth, overall positive results on state reporting, and families seeking out our community and our school system because of our reputation for excellence.
Could we handle an increase in senior tax exemptions in the short term? Yes, we could. We believe we could definitely deal with it in the first few years but over time we believe there would be a greater negative impact not just on our system, but on our community. We do not necessarily disagree with the financial numbers we’ve heard or immediate impact that is being shared publicly, but we do disagree with the assumptions that are being shared about the future and how we should handle the shortfall. 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. From 2003 – 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. Public Education truly is an investment in the future of a community. This school board and this community must continue funding that investment even when state funds fall short of what is expected. Children still come to school during a recession. Funds are still required.
To reiterate, we are opposed to HB 684 as currently written, how it was created and the language in it, but our opposition is not against the right to vote on a more thoughtful and researched proposal. 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. We are confident that impact would increase with time and, given the current language in the bill, we further believe that increase is very difficult to anticipate.
This necessitated the resolution we approved last year. 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.
The cost to the school system of the current senior exemption is $539,516 or approximately .51 mills based on the current value of a mill. 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. As a Board we believe we could adjust to an increased exemption that would decrease our current tax dollars by a half 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.
We are passionate advocates for children and always will be. We love our students and we love our community. That love is not merely a feeling it is the bedrock of every policy and financial decision we make. We have no hidden agenda. We strive to combine love and logic when we make decisions. We feel this is the reason we were elected by the citizens of Cartersville, regardless of their age, and we will continue to serve in this manner. Please do not mistake disagreement with the proposed bill and disagreement with certain assumptions made by people focused on a singular issue for a lack of compassion for those who need relief. We value all our citizens, young, old, and in between. We revel in many of our seniors joining us at school events – grandparents’ day, athletic events using a Golden Canes pass, plays, band concerts, etc. Our fervent belief is that a decision that impacts our future leaders, first responders, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, pastors, etc. should be well thought out and examined from all angles before a decision is made on what should be put on a ballot regarding an increase in the current exemption.
At the end of the day, our first priority is the children, the ones who don’t yet get a vote. We are morally obligated to keep them ever at the forefront of our thoughts and to be mindful of doing anything that would negatively affect their future.
We take our vision statement to heart: A tradition of excellence…….keeping it personal.