District must prove need for additional dollars

The Beaufort County School District may have hurt its case for more money by foregoing nearly $2 million in revenue.

newsroom@islandpacket.comApril 20, 2014 

Suppose a friend who couldn't pay his bills spent $10 on lottery tickets.

Would you question his priorities?

Sure, it's a measly $10 -- inadeqaute to pay the electric bill or car note. And maybe he'll hit the jackpot and never fret about a past due credit card bill again.

But it also says something about your friend's willingness to take risks at a time when he should be especially frugal. And you're certain to remember the incident if he ever asks you for a loan.

That's the situation the Beaufort County School District board is in.

The district anticipates needing $10 million more in the next fiscal year -- a 5 percent increase to its current $182.9 million budget.

But instead of showing taxpayers that it's doing all it can to save nickels and dimes, the district just agreed to forego $1.8 million in tax revenue over the next decade or so. The money will go toward buying land in Buckwalter Place, a business park in Bluffton.

We've written previously about this secretive and risky venture and won't repeat our concerns. Instead, we focus solely on the district taking a risk with taxpayers' dollars.

Sure, it's just $1.8 million or roughly $100,000 per year. That is arguably inconsequential in a district with a nearly $183 million budget.

And maybe the gamble will pay off and the district's investment will spur economic development at the park and grow the tax base. Long term, the investment could yield new tax dollars for the school district.

But it also speaks to the school board's willingness to slip out of its traditional role of educating students and take an unusual financial risk -- while holding its hand out for more taxpayers' dollars. The Buckwalter Place decision may damage the district's plea for $10 million and undermine public confidence that frugality is a school board priority.

School board members and staff have said much of the budget increase is out of their control. It's state-required pay and benefit increases for teachers and staff ($3 million); compensation for lost state funding for staff positions ($1 million); and new costs associated with growing enrollment, such as additional teachers ($2.6 million).

These factors may indeed be out of the district's control. But the Buckwalter Place decision was not. And neither is a thorough review of district programming, staffing and services to ensure there is no waste, efficiency or duplicative efforts.

We're encouraged that the district is auditing its bus routes, bringing some programs under one roof and looking for additional ways to increase efficiency. A thorough review may ease worries about tilted priorities. It's both the politically and fiscally correct thing to do.

These ongoing cost evaluations make it too early to say whether the Beaufort County Council should grant a budgetary increase for the district. (County Council has also given money toward Buckwalter Place so it surely won't hold the district's investment in the project against it.)

But taxpayers should keep the Buckwalter Place decision and budget increase in mind going forward.

They're being asked for a lot more than $10 in lottery tickets.

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