Beaufort schools consider whether to continue using lobbyists for fair funding

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 8, 2014 

The numbers speak for themselves, several local officials say.

After three consecutive years of receiving no money from one of the state's primary education funding formulas, the Beaufort County School District has made gains, according to Phyllis White, district chief operational services officer.

Some officials -- including County Council chairman Paul Sommerville and state Sen. Tom Davis -- believe the gains would not have happened without the lobbying work of The McNair Law Firm.

The school board is considering whether to continue its $25,000 per year contract with the firm for another year. The firm was hired in the winter of 2009-10 to analyze legislation and proposals to change how the state allocates money to public schools, as well as identify partners who could help the county get more money from the state. Fees paid to the form are split between the school district and county council.

School board chairman Bill Evans said The McNair Firm should be kept on.

"All I know is we have been putting $25,000 in and getting over $3 million back, so it sounds like a pretty good return on investment to me," he said.

From 2009 through 2011, Beaufort schools received no money from the Education Finance Act. It was the only county that got nothing, according to Davis, R-Beaufort.

But in the last few years, adjustments to the formula provided more money for the district, White said: $596,110 in 2012; $2.1 million last year and $3.9 million this year.

White said the changes came at the right time -- allowing the district to avoid serious budget cuts or seeking higher taxes.

"We reached a point where all the cuts from lack of funding were having a detrimental effect on district programs," she said. "So by having this EFA funding now, it's certainly helped where we don't have to rely on our local taxes, and it came at a time when we couldn't do much more for reductions."

The problem that left Beaufort County empty-handed involved the formula for distributing EFA money, Davis said. The EFA allocates money based on the total assessed value of a county's property. The higher that value, the less EFA funding a county receives, Davis said. The formula is premised on the idea that wealthier counties should be able to pay on their own for school expenses, he said.

Beaufort County was ranked the state's wealthiest county after the 2008 property reassessment, and therefore received no EFA funding, White said.

However, Davis said the funding formula is skewed because some residential properties whose values count toward the county's high property value are not subject to taxes that support school operations.

"If you look at EFA distribution among 46 counties and see which counties get what, it's mind boggling," Sommerville said.

Davis said The McNair Firm has helped him gather data that has been crucial to crafting alliances and making the funding more equitable.

Still, some school board members question whether they should continue to pay the firm.

"I cannot see spending that type of money when we could just work with our legislative delegation as a whole and they could work with us and help us to achieve the same results," board member Earl Campbell said.

To help answer questions, Evans said he will schedule a meeting that will include school board members, representatives from The McNair Firm and Davis.

"Some people don't like lobbyists, but it's a fact of life . . . . There are other districts who work with lobbyists for their interests so it would be crazy not to do the same thing," Evans said.

Attempts Wednesday to reach officials with The McNair Firm were unsuccessful.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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