Take more careful look at school board budget

newsroom@islandpacket.comMay 7, 2014 

STOCK

The Beaufort County School District cites matters beyond its control as a reason it might need $10 million more in funding from county sources than it received a year ago.

Unfunded state mandates are largely to blame, superintendent Jeff Moss has said. That problem is compounded by a state budget bill that could reduce the district's funding by nearly $700,000, as well as a lower-than-expected county property-tax collection rate.

There also is the matter of owners of multiple homes making their high-priced Beaufort County properties their primary residences, so as to reduce their tax rate and avoid paying for school operations.

This is not the district's doing, either -- it is a result of flawed state law.

But it is glaring that the only local jurisdiction proposing a significant budget hike is the one that has a heavy hammer on the non-resident (read: non-voting) out-of-towners. Local residents do not pay property taxes for school district operations. The property owners with no children in the schools do. The school board -- and state legislators -- need to remember that.

And although fair points can be made about unfunded state mandates, equally legitimate questions can be raised about programs and expenditures fully within the discretion of the district and the Beaufort County Board of Education.

For instance, is putting a tablet in the hands of every student in grades three through 12 by the end of next school year an imperative or an extra? Does it make sense to turn half-day prekindergarten classes into full-day classes when money is tight and the long-term benefits of such programs is debatable?

What's more, the school board has elected to forgo revenue by continuing its participation in a Hilton Head Island tax-increment finance district, and by joining a multi-county industrial park program so that the town of Bluffton can develop land as it sees fit.

Arguably, these decisions reflect a long view favoring eventual revenue gains from economic development. But two counterpoints are pertinent:

  • The district's need for revenue is immediate.

  • Its investment in special tax districts pays dividends only if no economic development would occur in Buckwalter or the Hilton Head Island TIF but for its participation. That, too, is arguable, particularly in the case of the Buckwalter land that Bluffton has targeted for purchase, a plot already on the market and likely to be commercially developed without public-sector intervention.

  • In fairness, the forgone revenue would not close a $10 million gap. Nonetheless, it opens a credibility gap where budgeting is concerned.

    It seems likely that a tax-rate increase is coming, and perhaps it is truly necessary.

    But it would be easier to believe it must be this way if some of the school board's decisions didn't suggest otherwise.

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