DeKalb school board reduces millage rate, but still raises taxes

The DeKalb County Board of Education approved the district’s fiscal year 2024 budget Tuesday, which included a last-minute decision to reduce the tax rate by one-tenth of a mill.

Board members at a virtual meeting indicated an interest in slowly scaling back the tax rate in the coming years, echoing similar comments from last year. DeKalb still has one of the highest tax rates in the state.

The district had advertised plans to maintain the tax rate at 23.08 mills. Because of rising property values, keeping the same tax rate would have given the district $75 million more in tax revenue over last year, according to budget documents.

The board instead voted 5-0 to set the tax rate at 22.98 mills. Two board members, Anna Hill and Joyce Morley, were not present.

The vote followed input from members of the school board and the public.

“I would like to see us reduce the millage rate, and I would like to see us have a serious conversation about why we’re charging more than 20 mills, potentially with a plan over several years for dropping the millage rate further,” said board member Whitney McGinniss.

Several members of the community asked the board to reduce the tax rate, including a state representative and a resident who pointed out that DeKalb’s tax rate is one of the highest in the state.

Georgia law caps school district tax rates at 20 mills, but DeKalb is one of a handful of districts that have been exempted from the rule. District staff is still researching why that is, but DeKalb isn’t doing anything improper by having a higher tax rate, school board attorney Melanie Slaton said.

Board member Allyson Gevertz pointed out that a small reduction would have little impact on the district this year, considering that it has federal pandemic aid it has yet to use and more than $300 million in its reserve fund.

“It’s gonna be OK if we do that tenth of a mill rollback,” she said.

The reduction represents a loss of $3.7 million in tax revenue for the district. The district will still collect roughly $865 million in tax revenue, according to budget documents. The district’s overall budget tops $2.6 billion.

District staff recommended a conservative approach to the tax rate, citing economic uncertainty. Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley cautioned the board to make sure its budget is supporting students. That’s what made the idea of lowering the tax rate a hard choice, explained board member Deirdre Pierce.

“On one hand, we want lower rates — but we want better schools,” Pierce said. “We want them to be the best. That takes money.”

The budget allocates about $70 million in raises for most employees — including at least 6% cost-of-living increases. Some employees will see additional raises as well.

Bus drivers who made $20,099 this year will get a $1,206 raise and make $21,305 in the coming year. Teachers who made $54,216 this year will get a $3,253 raise and make $57,469 in the coming year.

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