A plan to increase property taxes to outfit thousands of students with iPads seemed to be gaining support on Beaufort County Council.
Several members of the Finance Committee praised the program Monday, describing it as critical and potentially life-changing for some students.
Yet for all the attention it's received, the iPad proposal is almost a distraction, Councilman Paul Sommerville says.
"It's almost a red herring to argue about whether we like iPads or not. It really doesn't make a difference whether we like iPads," he said, noting the district could move ahead with the program even if council votes down the tax increase.
The County Council has the last say on the school district's budget, setting the tax rate and overall budget amount. Council does not adjust individual line items, however, which is the school board's responsibility.
The proposed $177.9 million school-district budget includes state-mandated raises for all district staff and a $1.8 million technology plan that would put iPads in some middle and high school classrooms. The budget also eliminates 30 positions and would bring a property-tax increase of about $30 on a $250,000 non-owner-occupied home.
Council members learned Monday that the school district could get additional state funding this year that could cut in half the proposed tax increase. That depends on which budget version gets approved in Columbia. The S.C. Senate's version would bring as much as $1.4 million in new funding that could be used to offset the tax hike, according to district staff.
The iPad issue dominated the roughly four-hour Finance Committee meeting, which also included discussion on the county's proposed $97.1 million budget for 2012-13. A final reading on that plan, which calls for no tax increase or cuts in government services, is scheduled for June 11.
Councilman Stu Rodman, who admitted he is not too familiar with iPads and their potential uses, said not buying them could leave some students behind.
Councilman Jerry Stewart described the iPad program as "critical," while Sommerville described it as "an idea whose time has not just come, it's almost passed."
Councilmen Brian Flewelling and Steven Baer remain opposed to the iPad proposal.
No final votes were taken on the school budget. Council will hold a second reading on the school budget June 11, and a final vote could occur June 25.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.