BOE supports tax rule change for operations

SUWANEE -- Gwinnett County Board of Education Chairman Robert McClure said he does not want to raise property taxes to generate more money for the school system's operating budget.

Instead, he said he would favor a constitutional amendment that would allow school systems to ask voters to approve a sales tax that could fund operational expenses. Currently, an education special purpose local option sales tax can only be used for capital projects, such as school construction and the purchase of technology.

The discussion of the sales tax happened Thursday evening during a public hearing on the budget, which two community members attended.

McClure and other school board members said they wouldn't want to replace the more stable property tax with a sales tax, which is a fluctuating revenue stream. They also wouldn't want to dedicate sales tax revenue to funding salaries, as a sales tax must be renewed by voters and could disappear if people voted against it.

But in a financial crunch like the one the school system is currently experiencing, McClure said being able to use sales tax revenue "could make a huge difference if we could use it for different parts of the budget."

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks has recommended a $1.7 billion budget for the 2011-12 school year. Of that, $1.2 billion will comprise the general fund, which pays for the district's operations.

The district began the budget cycle with a $75 million shortfall. In addition, district officials also knew they faced $29 million in increased expenses due to student enrollment growth and the expiration of federal stimulus dollars.

To close the budget gap, the school system will make $73 million in cuts. It will also use $31 million from the fund balance, money that was put aside this year when the school system received the Federal Education Jobs Fund.

"We have worked very diligently to really make sure we have a budget that allows us to continue to do what we're supposed to do and utilize the funds available to us," Wilbanks said. "Shrinking revenue is foremost on my mind. My concern is that next year doesn't look much better."

A second and final public hearing will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday. The school board is expected to adopt the budget during its 7 p.m. business meeting that evening. The meetings will take place in the board room of the Instructional Support Center, 437 Old Peachtree Road N.W., Suwanee.