The Jasper County Board of Education is asking a simple question in its lawsuit against the Jasper County Council, and the court should give it an answer as quickly as possible.
Does County Council have the authority to cut a school district budget approved by the school board?
County Council recently cut the property tax rate for school operations, reducing funding by about $444,000, even though the school board had passed a budget calling for no tax rate increase.
The school board thinks the county cannot do that, so it sued.
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The board asks for a declaratory judgment against County Council and the county auditor that would restore the budget approved by the school board for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
The court owes the public a quick ruling because students report to school Aug. 19.
School funding is complicated in South Carolina, but there should be clarity on this particular aspect. Surely, this legal question has been asked and answered before.
It is our understanding that Jasper County and Beaufort County are among 21 school districts statewide that have tax rates set by county councils. Those county councils are not to dip into line items of the school district budget, but can set the school districts' upper spending limit through the property tax rate.
But now the Jasper County board contends Jasper County Council has no legal authority to make appropriations or levy taxes for educational purposes. It says the state constitution, as amended in 1975, is on its side.
Meanwhile, a bill to give the Jasper County board fiscal autonomy from County Council was introduced in February by state Sen. Clementa Pinckney of Jasper County. It was given two readings in the Senate, but not a third and final reading.
The bill, which could resurface when the legislature comes back into session in January, states that the tax levy for school purposes would be controlled by the school board. But a tax rate increase in any given year would be limited to no more than 8 mills unless it was approved by the Jasper County Legislative Delegation.
Whether this question of authority is answered in the courts or in the legislature, the welfare of the county's students should be kept in mind. That requires the court to help bring certainty to the 2013-2014 school district budget in Jasper County.