Jasper school board sues County Council over school funding

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comJuly 17, 2013 

The Jasper County Board of Education filed a lawsuit Monday against the County Council and county auditor to try to restore funding to the school district's budget.

The suit follows a vote last month by County Council to cut property taxes for school funding by about $444,000, according to a school district news release.

The Board of Education approved a budget without a property tax increase, but County Council voted to cut the tax rate from 172 to 166 mills, according to the suit.

The school board has asked a Circuit Court to prohibit council and the auditor from imposing the tax levy, and a judge's ruling to restore funding for the coming school year, which starts Aug. 19.

Board attorney William Halligan of Childs & Halligan, P.A. in Columbia claims County Council lacks authority to appropriate money or levy taxes for public education, and is limited to enacting what has been approved by the school board.

State Act No. 288 directs the Board of Education to develop and approve a budget "sufficient to meet the educational needs of the county."

"We worked hard to meet our legal obligations ... and now County Council has single-handedly put us and the county in violation of that law," chairman Berty Riley said in the release. "... (The budget) is what we need to help our children succeed in school, in our county and in our world."

County Council has 30 days to respond to the suit. County Council chairman Henry Etheridge said Tuesday he had yet to review the lawsuit or the district's press release and declined to comment.

Barbara Clark, who served two years on the Board of Education before being elected to County Council in November, said the school district spends too much on administration and not enough on instruction, and felt a lower tax rate was appropriate given the district's declining enrollment.

District officials anticipate an enrollment of 2,710 students for next year; about 417 less than estimated for 2012-13.

Some have suggested the school board dip into its reserve account or eliminate school-resource officers and technology for students to make up for the shortfall. Riley and Superintendent Vashti Washington say that is impractical.

"The safety of our students and our staff is not negotiable, and in today's world ... technology is going to be increasingly important to young learners," Riley said.

The $24.8 million budget approved by the school board also includes about $570,000 to restore the fund balance, which stands at 7.2 percent of general operating costs, well below the 15-20 percent school finance experts recommend.

Riley said the board dipped into the reserve account to avoid employee furloughs and layoffs mid-year after losing $1.1 million in state dollars because of declining enrollment, as students left for new charter schools in the area.

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, introduced a bill in February that would wrest authority to raise property taxes for school operations from the County Council and give it to the Board of Education. The bill stalled in the Senate this session and could be taken up again next year.

An attempt to reach Pinckney on Tuesday was unsuccessful.

As in Beaufort County and 19 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, according to the S.C. School Boards Association.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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