Decatur School Board discusses proposal for new senior tax breakFILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: The City Schools of Decatur Board of Education. Top row, left to right: Superintendent David Dude and School Board Chair Lewis Jones. Bottom row, left to right: School board members James Herndon, Tasha White (Vice Chair), Heather Tell and Jana Johnson-Davis. Image obtained via City Schools of Decatur
By Sara Amis, contributor
Decatur, GA — The Decatur School Board during its Nov. 10 meeting discussed a proposal for a new senior tax break which will replace the current one. The goal is for the new tax break to be less of a drain on the school system’s resources than the current tax break.
City Schools of Decatur’s current senior homestead tax exemption, created in 2016, will sunset at the end of 2021.
The CSD School Board formed a committee to come up with a new version of the exemption that will both solve budget problems created by the previous version, and be ready to give to the DeKalb County members of the state legislature before the legislative session begins in January.
The existing exemption was expected to cost the school district an additional $1.2 million per year over existing exemptions; however, it cost an extra $3.5 million in reduced revenues in 2019, and an estimated $5.7 million in 2020.
To make up the shortfall, the district raised the millage rate from 18.66 to 20.25 and reduced some services.
The Senior Homestead Tax Exemption Committee proposed two exemptions to replace the previous one, divided by age and including some income constraints.
For seniors aged 65-69 who make 80% or less of the adjusted median income of $52,980 no less than $160,000 of their home will be exempt. For seniors aged 70 and above, $160,000 of assessed value will be exempt regardless of income. This means that up to $320,000 of the value of a senior’s home will be exempt from school tax. These figures assume a 7% growth of the tax digest and an equal growth of the exemption.
Wording of the exemption for legislation is not yet final, however the exemptions will be no less than the $160,000 amount. The School Board agreed to ask Georgia State University for numbers based on assuming a 5.5% growth of the exemption, which would allow the amount of the exemption for each homeowner to be higher.
In other business at the Nov. 10 meeting, Superintendent Dr. David Dude reported on the progress of the COVID-19 Stakeholder Planning Committee which is working on recommendations for re-opening for in-person schooling. After an original group of 12, the committee has expanded to 60 members including medical professionals, teachers, and parents. The committee plans to have a final report ready by November 20.
Dr. Dude acknowledged concerns that a Nov. 20 date left little time for planning if conditions allow schools to re-open in January. He stated that the work of the administrative team was proceeding concurrently with that of the committee and they were staying informed so those final recommendations would not come as a surprise.
In contrast with October’s meeting, public comment was dominated by parents emphasizing the urgency of getting students back into classrooms, especially children with special needs and younger children for whom distance learning is least effective. Several cited their children’s struggles with mental health and becoming increasingly disengaged with school. Ginger Lemon said, “I’m watching my children struggle. It’s impactful and it’s heartbreaking.”
Yael Sherman said, “It’s a mental health crisis.”
Others expressed concern for teachers, while Bridget Goodman, a junior at Decatur High School, said, “I don’t think those mental health challenges are going anywhere. If I were to inadvertently infect a classmate or a teacher or my classmate’s parent or someone in my teacher’s household, I don’t know how I could live with myself. I don’t think anyone could. I think that’s a very real challenge.”
Board members acknowledged strong and competing community concerns while urging community members to listen to each other.
Board member Tasha White said, “We are living in a country that is completely divided, and we are living in a state that is completely divided. We are also living in a city that is completely divided, and we are not used to that. I think that what I would like to stress is that the decisions we are making and the work that is being done in the background are for the best interests of the students and your children. They are always at the forefront of the decisions that are being made.”
White said at times it seems the two sides of the debate seem unreconcilable.
“We are so divided that there seems to be nothing one side can say to the other than the other side believes. Probably because there should only be one side, the community of Decatur,” White said. “I do want to let all of the parents know, who spoke to us last month and the ones who spoke to us today, that I hear you, and your fears and your troubles are real. One is not more real than the other, though.”
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