Representatives of Beaufort County Council and the Board of Education gave an overview Thursday of the often-contentious process used to build the school district's budget in an effort to assuage concerns raised in recent months.
Local officials, parents and other residents filled the County Council Chambers to hear the beginning of a review by a Beaufort County Legislative Delegation study committee formed to evaluate how the annual budget is developed and identify areas that could be improved.
Shell Point Elementary School parents who oppose a proposal to shutter the school requested the study committee. The closure is among several options the school board is considering to combat an anticipated $4-million shortfall in its $175-million general-fund budget.
Parents say that since school board and council members have blamed one another for the budget problems, they aren't sure what caused the shortfall that may close their school.
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"We're just parents and we didn't understand the process," said Lisa Kindwall, chairwoman of the Shell Point Elementary School Improvement Council. "We needed someone else to help us. We need an agent of independent inquiry."
That inquiry began Thursday with presentations from Board of Education chairman Fred Washington Jr. and County Council finance committee chairman Stu Rodman. Both were asked to speak by the study committee.
Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort; Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island; and Rep. Curtis Brantley, D-Ridgeland, comprise the committee. Brantley did not attend the meeting, but Erickson said he will watch a taped version of the presentations later.
Washington gave a detailed timeline of the budget process and noted opportunities for public comment. He pointed out leaders of School Improvement Councils or Parent-Teacher Organizations are required to sign off on school-level budgets.
However, Washington said he believes communication between the board and the public on budgetary and other issues could be improved. He committed to tackling that problem this year.
"While we're doing so-so, it's not good enough," he said.
The school board doesn't have the power to levy taxes to support its budget. Instead, it submits a budget to County Council, which must approve it and set a tax rate.
Last summer, County Council rejected the district's request to raise taxes on non-resident homes and commercial and personal properties by about 2 percent to fund the operating budget for the current school year. Members told the district to use its reserves to close the gap.
Rodman denied that County Council had any influence on the decision to consider closing schools. He said council has the right to an up-or-down vote on the budget, but doesn't have line-item control.
He said the district's expenditures have been approved as submitted for the last six years. The point of contention, he said, is whether the tax increase was needed to fund the budget.
He suggested legislative actions that could be considered:
A few residents, including some former school board members, also suggested fiscal independence for the school board.
One of them, Charles Kresch, said it's time to rethink the process.
"It's broken," he said. "The same issues come up every year."
James Moore, pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, said the current approach means one elected body is seeking to dominate another so the process is bound to be divisive.
Erickson said the study committee will the discuss the information received Thursday before determining the next step. She hopes the committee will make a recommendation by the end of the month.