School board to decide how to pay back $150,000 for St. Helena library

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 2, 2012 

John Sweet of St. Helena Island looks through the DVD selection at the St. Helena Branch Library at St. Helena Elementary School on Aug. 21.%0D

DELAYNA EARLEY THE BEAUFORT GAZE

  • The Beaufort County Board of Education meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Beaufort County Council Chambers at 100 Ribaut Road in Beaufort.

Beaufort County's plan to vacate the St. Helena library at St. Helena Elementary School leaves the school district on the hook for $150,000.

School officials say they were surprised by the provision in the 20-year-old lease that requires them to pay back a contribution the county gave the district to build the school.

On Tuesday, the Beaufort County Board of Education is scheduled to decide where the $150,000 repayment will come from. Though most board members agree the money has to be repaid, several said it was unfortunate that it comes during a time of budget cuts.

But at least one board member, Michael Rivers, who represents the St. Helena area, said he doesn't think the payback is necessary because, ultimately, it's all taxpayer money.

It "came out of the same pocket," he said. "It's all from the citizens."

The county library, which uses part of the media center space at St. Helena Elementary but is blocked off from the rest of the school, plans to move by early November into a new $11.1 million building near Penn Center.

THE OPTIONS

The school district can find the $150, 000 to repay the county in two places, district chief of operations Phyllis White said.

The money could be taken from the general budget. That would mean making some cuts, because the district didn't factor the expense into this year's budget and doesn't have a contingency fund, White said. Cuts probably would be made at the district office, White said, though after several years of reductions there, further trims would be difficult.

The other option is to take the money from the capital budget, used mainly for school repair and construction. Several board members favor that option.

"I think that's going to be the logical place and might be the only legitimate place," board member Bill Evans said.

Board vice chairman George Wilson agreed. Members Laura Bush and Julie Bell said they are undecided. Attempts to reach board chairman Fred Washington Jr. and board members Ron Speaks, Earl Campbell and Herbert Burnes were unsuccessful.

Taking the money from the capital fund wouldn't require budget cuts or reductions in other planned repairs at schools, White said.

Although $150,000 might seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the district's $177 million budget, White said, schools have been operating on thin margins, and the district has come within a few hundred thousand dollars of exceeding its budget in recent years.

THE SURPRISE

Several board members said they had no idea the payback provision was in the lease, which was first executed in 1992 and renewed in 2004.

The lease states that at the time the county chooses to leave the library, the school district will buy back the space from Beaufort County Council for the price of the council's initial contribution: $150,000.

Laura Bush, who was on the school board when the original agreement was made, said she vaguely recalled the provision. She wouldn't rule out a similar agreement in the future, she said.

"We worked as part of a collaborative effort," she said. "If it came up again, I would take a look at it because we were saving taxpayers' dollars."

A few board members said the clause is binding and fair.

"It's not the way you usually do something," Wilson said. "I was surprised at the deal, but both parties made the deal, so what can I say? You live with what people did in the past."

But Rivers said he'd like to renegotiate. He cited mistakes made in the county's administration of the New River tax increment financing district that have cost county schools an estimated nearly $20 million.

"If we can work out a deal and relax when it comes to millions, why would you then be fighting us on this?" he asked.

Related content:

  1. St. Helena Branch Library lease: County's $150K gain would be school district's pain; Aug. 15, 2012
  2. Beaufort County, school district inch toward resolution of tax-district dispute; March 26, 2012

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