Authority to set school tax rate means just what it says

info@islandpacket.comOctober 2, 2013 

Fourteenth Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen made the right call in a lawsuit over the tax rate set for the Jasper County School District. The law is clear that the legal authority to set the rate lies with Jasper County Council, not the school board.

To say that the school board determines how much the district spends and County Council merely sets the tax rate to bring in that amount defeats the purpose of county oversight. Why bother if that's the case? Just let the school board set the rate.

The debate to be had over local school funding is not how Jasper County Council or Beaufort County Council sets the tax rate for their respective school districts, but whether they should do it at all.

And the way to financial independence for the school boards lies with the legislature, not the courts. State law must change to accomplish it.

That certainly is clear in Mullen's decision in the Jasper County school board lawsuit. Mullen said state law has never given the Jasper board any power to levy taxes, and local taxing authority comes from the legislature.

The school board sued after it passed a budget for this fiscal year that required no tax rate increase, but County Council cut the rate anyway. That resulted in about $444,000 less revenue for the district.

The school board claims it is responsible for determining how much money must be spent to meet the county's educational needs; County Council's job is to set the tax rate to accomplish that. Or as the board's attorney said, the council can approve the budget or reject it, but it can't override it.

But the county's attorney said that interpretation of the law made the council a "rubber stamp" in the process, and he's right. It makes no sense to say County Council must set the tax rate, but only at the level the school board determines.

The Beaufort County School District in recent years hasn't sought financial independence, but the board has made a similar argument over its tax rate for operations. Once the county signs off on the district's operating budget, district officials have said, County Council must set the tax rate at a level sufficient to raise the money. Mullen's ruling suggests otherwise.

Still, this process should be a two-way street. As a school budget is debated, a county council and a school board should be on the same page about the dollar amount to be spent and its impact on the tax rate.

But Mullen's ruling and the law are unambiguous about where the taxing authority lies for our local districts. It lies with the county councils.

The Jasper County school board can appeal Mullen's decision, but its time would be better spent making a case for fiscal autonomy to lawmakers.

The fact that taxing authority among the state's school districts is far from uniform is a good place to start.

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