Opening new Bluffton schools might strain budget, district officials warn

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 10, 2014 

Chief student services officer Gregory McCord answers questions Jan. 10, 2014, from the Beaufort County Board of Education during the first day of the board's two-day work session.

STAFF PHOTO

Though the Beaufort County School District recently returned an unexpected $3 million windfall from a tax-rate hike to the county, at some point it might have to ask to have it back.

During the first day of the school board's two-day work session Friday, board members discussed the district budget for the next several years, during which two new schools in Bluffton to ease overcrowding are expected to open.

Getting those schools running could cost as much as $4 million, district officials projected.

Although the projections are preliminary, there is no question the district will have to account for additional costs the schools will entail, according to superintendent Jeffrey Moss.

The school board hopes it can manage without raising taxes.

"While I don't want to increase the millage unless we absolutely need to, we also want to have the best education for our students," said Mary Cordray, the board's Finance and Operations Committee co-chairwoman.

The district still does not know exactly how much money it will have for the next fiscal year, chief operational services officer Phyllis White said.

White provided a forecast -- Moss called it a "worst-case scenario" -- in which the district's expenses rise but its revenue remains flat. More likely, White said, revenue would rise modestly, but she could not say for sure or by how much.

Clarity will come as this year's tax receipts arrive, White said.

"Seeing these projections gives us an opportunity to start planning how we are going to address the opening of the new schools," White told board members. "So we can see if we want to do something with a combination of reductions in costs or working with the county to see about a change in our millage rates."

White and her staff estimated the one-time opening costs, excluding construction, to be about $1.5 million for the new elementary school and about $2.4 million for the high school.

"It is premature to even be having that discussion," she added, "but it's something to continue keeping an eye on how our revenue is doing and how we are going to address the costs of opening the new schools."

Projections also would change along with alterations to state funding mandates or state funding formulas.

The other big unknown is the tax-increment finance district on Hilton Head Island that is set to end next December. Its end would bring an additional $3.1 million in revenue to the schools, but Moss said Hilton Head officials want to extend the tax district.

The extension is being considered in part to help finance construction of a University of South Carolina Beaufort campus on the island. Moss said he is seeking a meeting with town officials to discuss options.

Ending the tax district "will go a long way to offset increases in operational costs to ensure we would not have to request a higher millage rate once those schools are up and running," Moss said.

The board will begin to set budget priorities and has a budget work session scheduled for March 28. White said the district will have much more information by then and be able to discuss concrete numbers.

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

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