Several residents advocate for more fiscal autonomy for school board

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 3, 2012 

A group of residents told local legislators Tuesday that giving the Beaufort County Board of Education more control in creating annual budgets and setting tax rates would make it more accountable to taxpayers.

"I think the school board should have the authority and responsibility to handle their own money," said Tom Conner. "This community has elected school board members to do a job. I believe they should be allowed to do that job. And if they do not do that job in a responsible and authoritative way, then get rid of them."

About 20 residents attended a meeting at the Technical College of the Lowcountry's New River campus in Okatie. About half of those present -- mostly current or former school board or County Council members -- spoke to Sen. Tom Davis and Reps. Shannon Erickson and Andy Patrick about the issue.

Currently, the County Council approves the school district's operating budget and sets it annual tax rates. But over the years, that arrangement has prompted disagreements.

For the past two years, the council has rejected the board's request to raise taxes on nonresident homes and commercial and personal properties.

Any change to the process would have to be made by local legislators. A committee, which includes Erickson, Davis, Patrick and Rep. Curtis Brantley, has been studying the issue for about a year.

Two more meetings to gather public input are planned for this week: One is at 6 p.m. today in Beaufort County Council Chambers, 100 Ribaut Road, Beaufort; the third is at 6 p.m. Thursday at Hilton Head Island Town Hall, 1 Town Center Court.

Charles Kresch, who served on the school board in the 1990s, said Tuesday the current process is not easy for citizens to understand.

"No one takes real responsibility," Kresch said. "The school board blames the County Council for when they don't get enough for what they need to do, and the County Council says the school board is asking for too much."

Superintendent Valerie Truesdale also said giving the school board more control would make it more accountable to taxpayers.

"When an organization such as a board of education is responsible directly, it's not a cakewalk," she said. "It is direct accountability to the people for every line item."

The school board has not requested more autonomy. Board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said he thinks progress has been made in the relationship between County Council and the school board in recent years. He said he was speaking on his own behalf and not for the school board.

Board vice chairman George Wilson, also speaking on his own behalf, said the decision might be best answered through a countywide referendum.

Both Erickson and Davis said after the meeting that hearing from a variety of people with different backgrounds was their goal as they continue conversations on what, if any, changes to make.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

Public meetings planned on school budget autonomy; Dec. 27, 2011

Community input wanted on school budget autonomy; Nov. 7, 2011

Local legislative delegation hears overview of school budget process; Jan. 6, 2011

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