Panel discusses fiscal autonomy for school board

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 28, 2012 

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Steps can be taken to ease tension between County Council and the Beaufort County School Board of Education without granting the school board more control of its budget and tax rates, a panel of council and board members and district staff said Wednesday.

The panel -- which included councilmen Brian Flewelling and Stu Rodman, school board chairman Fred Washington Jr., board member Bill Evans, and district chief of operations Phyllis White -- told an audience of about 15 that increased communication and agreement on tax collection rates were just two of several options that could smooth the often-troubled relations.

Currently, County Council approves the district's operating budget and sets its annual tax rates. That arrangement has caused disagreement between the two bodies in the past.

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

Any change to this process would have to be made by local state legislators.

A committee of those legislators -- including state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, state Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, and state Rep. Curtis Brantley, D-Ridgeland -- has been studying the issue for about a year and held three public forums in January.

Erickson said earlier Tuesday that since then, she has met with two other S.C. school districts to discuss how much fiscal autonomy those districts have. She said she plans to speak to more districts -- including some similar in size and structure to Beaufort County -- to gather more information.

Members of Tuesday's panel, organized by the Leadership Beaufort Alumni Association, didn't agree on whether the district should have fiscal autonomy.

But they did agree that if the issue were put to a vote, it would fail.

"If you read it on the ballot, it may not be clear what people are voting on," White said. "And the people who are voting on it don't have any (stake) in the game."

White referred to Act 388, a law passed in 2006, that states that none of the tax revenue generated from property taxes on owner-occupied homes can be used for school operating funds.

All the panelists except Rodman said changes or the repeal of Act 388 was one of the best ways to ease tension between the school board and county council.

"Act 388 must go," Flewelling said. "It holds all of us hostage."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content: Several residents advocate for more fiscal autonomy for school board; Jan. 3, 2012

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

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