Beaufort News

Auditor's Office error could cost schools state money

An accounting error in the Beaufort County Auditor's Office has left the county's schools uncertain whether they will receive Education Finance Act money from the state.

Each year, nearly $1 billion in state money is divvied up among school districts based, in part, on property values in each district. Wealthier districts -- those with a lot of expensive property -- receive fewer dollars from the state on the theory that they can pay a greater share of their school costs themselves.

When auditor Sharon Burris reported the value of the district's taxable property to the state last year, she accidentally overstated the figure by about $200 million.

Officials sent a revised value to the state last week, but until the S.C. Department of Revenue and the S.C. Department of Education analyze the numbers, it won't be known whether the district is in line to receive state money.

STATE MONEY

The state divides a pool of money among 85 school disricts based on a formula set by the 1977 Education Finance Act. Of about $1 billion available, Beaufort County receives none -- the only district in the state that doesn't get an allocation. This is the third consecutive school year the county has come up empty-handed, mostly because its tax base is high compared to that of other counties.

In November, Burris reported that the value of property in the county on which school taxes could be based was about $2 billion, an overstatement of roughly 10 percent.

THE ERROR

A combination of computer and human error caused the inflated number, Burris said.

In calculating the county's tax base, the relatively new Manatron software system erroneously included the wrong values for property in certain special taxing districts, Burris said.

Burris said she had given Manatron officials instructions for correctly valuing those properties. The $200 million overstatement wasn't caught because Burris trusted the calculations coming out of the computer.

"I assumed that the figures were correct," she said. "The verification was not as thorough as it should have been on my part."

Burris thinks figures sent to the state a year earlier, in 2009, also were incorrect because they were also generated by Manatron. It's too late to try to recoup money the school district might have lost as a result of that year's overstatement, she said.

THE FIX

Officials only found out about the mistake this year when Phyllis White, the district's operational services chief, saw a discrepancy.

"I noticed that the figure that was being used for our assessed value seemed to be high," White said, "so I contacted the Auditor's Office and pointed that out."

From there, Burris and county finance staff worked to identify the cause of the problem, then corrected the figure.

Burris said Manatron has been notified of the error and will fix its system.

She sent a revised figure to the state Tuesday, but state officials haven't run it through their formulas yet. Until they do, no one knows whether Beaufort County will receive an allocation under the new figures.

"They're working on it now," White said.

She said local officials hope to know more this week.

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