Bill would give Jasper County school board tax authority

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comMarch 4, 2013 

Though not asking for it, some Jasper County school officials say they support a bill that would allow the school district to manage its own operating budget and set its own tax rate.

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, introduced a bill last month that would wrest authority to raise property taxes for school operations from the Jasper County Council, beginning this year.

The school board would be allowed to raise taxes for school operations by no more than 8 mills a year. Larger increases would need majority approval of the county's legislative delegation.

An attempt to reach Pinckney on Monday was unsuccessful.

As in Beaufort County and 17 other counties in the state, Jasper County Council sets the district's upper spending limit and the property-tax rate but cannot adjust individual line items.

About 30 districts in the state have limited autonomy, similar to what's proposed for Jasper County, according to the S.C. School Boards Association.

The association says giving school boards more control over creating annual budgets and setting tax rates would make them more accountable to taxpayers.

Jasper County schools superintendent Vashti Washington and school board Chairwoman Berty Riley support the change. The school board, however, has not taken an official stand.

Other board members declined to comment, saying they needed more information and time to consider the bill.

Washington and Riley said passage of the bill would better allow the district to respond to needs -- without having to debate them before County Council, which at times can be contentious.

County Council has been willing to fund most of the district's requests, Washington said. "But many times, views are very different ... and such review is redundant and unneeded."

School board members are elected -- by the same people who elect County Council -- to do the district's work and are better informed about instruction, operations and school needs, Riley and Washington say.

Riley believes the board has done well spending the district's money as is up to the task of assuming control over the budget.

County Council Chairman Henry Etheridge declined to comment about the bill.

The likelihood of a companion bill in the S.C. House of Representatives, though, seems slim, according to Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, who represents part of Jasper County.

"I'm willing to listen, but not inclined to support fiscal autonomy," said Newton, who is a former Beaufort County Council chairman. He said that view is shared by other House members representing Jasper County.

"Having County Council review and approve the district's budget provides an appropriate check and balance," Newton said.

Beaufort County voters rejected financial independence for its school board in a referendum in 1987.

Last year, a group of residents advocated for more fiscal autonomy for the Beaufort County Board of Education. A panel of County Council and school board members later determined that if put to a vote again, the measure would fail.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom

Related content:

Senate Bill 358

Jasper County School District

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

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