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School officials expect deficit spending

Clayton to get projected $36 million in equalization

JONESBORO — School finance officials are planning another year of deficit spending.

Clayton County Public Schools will likely have to dip into its reserve funds in order to balance its fiscal year 2014 budget, even as the district anticipates getting more state funding.

Business services director Lonita Collier said the district stands to receive as much as $36 million through the state’s equalization grant program. She said the projection is $8 million more than this year.

Collier said equalization money is given proportionately to “financially underprivileged” districts to help make up for funding gaps created by their depressed tax digests.

Districts earn money based on a formula that considers property values and growth — that is how much they get in property tax revenues to pay for services to their growing student populations.

Collier said the money should give Clayton more equal footing with districts in wealthier digests.

“Our property tax values are decreasing and the wealth of the community as a whole is decreasing,” she said. “We started feeling it in 2008 from the housing market crash, and we’re still recovering.”

Clayton’s projected share of equalization money is the second-largest among districts statewide, according to data from the Georgia Department of Education. Of the state’s 180 districts, only Gwinnett County Public Schools would receive more at $65 million. Sixty-three districts are not expected to receive grant money.

“These extra funds will help to balance the budget,” said Collier.

She said depressed property values are toxic when operating expenses for health benefits and teachers’ retirement plans are steadily and rapidly increasing.

Collier said just the rumor that Southlake Mall in Morrow had fallen into foreclosure had a major impact on perceived property values.

“All of that has a negative impact on our revenues and funding,” she said. “The property taxes are a bigger source of income for us, so we really feel the full force of it when values are down.”

Property tax, she said, is a more reliable source of revenues for the district.

“If we can get a stable community, that’s consistent incoming money that we can depend on,” she said.

School finance officials will present a preliminary budget to the school board Monday.