School board: Lobbyists made progress toward changing state funding formula

August 18, 2010 

The Beaufort County School District still receives no money from one of the state's primary education funding formulas.

But a law firm paid to lobby for education funding reform made progress -- thus making its $21,000 fee money well-spent, several local officials say.

"While we did not achieve success, we were placed on the right road to achieve success in the coming year," school board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said during Tuesday's meeting.

Last winter, County Council and the school board hired the McNair Law Firm to analyze legislation and proposals to change how the state allocates money to public schools. It also identified partners who could help Beaufort County reform the Education Finance Act, an effort Washington said will be essential to the district's success.

Although legislators from other coastal counties seemed to climb aboard, 2010-11 will mark the third consecutive school year the Beaufort County School District has not received EFA money. The formula doles out state money based on a county's property values.

Council and school board members met with McNair representatives last week to discuss the firm's work. McNair listed proposed education-funding legislation and summarized votes and floor discussions about the issue.

McNair also assessed the possibility of suing the state if the General Assembly doesn't change the formula. That information was not made public because it includes legal strategies, Washington said.

Washington said McNair will present to the board in the next few weeks a proposal for work it could do next legislative session if the school board and county want to rehire the firm.

However, board member Earl Campbell said the S.C. School Boards Association and other groups already disseminatesmuch of the information McNair provided.

"To me, it was a waste of money," he said. "That's just my feeling."

Campbell said he expected the firm would have spent more time talking to legislators in Columbia about their ideas for changing the formula and presented more specific recommendations to the board about how to best achieve reform -- whether through the legislature or the courts.

"I thought they were going to come back with something concrete on what we could do and what we couldn't do," he said.

School board member George Wilson said success often comes slowly when reforming state law.

"It may not look like a lot, but it takes awhile to make changes when it comes to legislation," Wilson said.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he used McNair's data and research to debate the issue on the Senate floor and draft a budget proviso.

"I think they did a good job of doing the really hard number-crunching throughout the state," Davis said.

County Council chairman Weston Newton said officials did not enter into the agreement with McNair, believing the $21,000 effort would fix the formula in one year. But he said the firm did advance the discussion in Columbia.

"They moved the ball forward," he said.

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