Beaufort News

Schools may close if tax increase rejected, says Board of Education

The Beaufort County Board of Education says it will consider closing schools if County Council doesn't approve a property-tax increase this summer.

During a budget work session Friday, board members reiterated a stand they took in February, when they voted to "immediately initiate any activities necessary to close at least one or more schools" for the 2012-13 school year, if council doesn't agree to a tax hike.

The February vote also affirmed that no schools would close next school year.

"We're at the point where we are having to consider cutting major programs or increasing class sizes and laying off teachers," board member Wayne Carbiener said. "We just don't have any other place to squeeze money out of, to be honest."

The board gave preliminary approval Friday to a $175 million general-fund budget for next school year.

The spending plan includes about $5 million in cuts to offset rising costs, but the board says it still needs to raise taxes by 3 percent on nonresident homes and commercial and personal property. State law exempts resident homeowners from property taxes to fund school operations.

The hike would need County Council approval because the school board can't levy taxes.

Last summer, County Council refused to raise property taxes for the current school year. Some council members denied that their refusal to increase taxes influenced the school board to discuss school closures.

Carbiener countered that council controls how much money is available to the school district, which determines how deep the board has to cut to balance its budget.

"It has a big influence on whether I would vote to close a school or not," he said.

Carbiener said that point needs to be clear when the school board and council begin the often-contentious process to build the district's budget. A first vote by council on the school budget is scheduled for May 9.

Despite the board's February vote, at least one board member maintained Friday that the possibility of school closings shouldn't be discussed.

"Closing a school is the last thing we should have on our minds," said board member Ronald Speaks, who represents the Shell Point area and has opposed proposals to shutter schools.

He said board members should make sure parents and other public-school advocates know what's at stake in this year's budget discussions and encourage them to show support for their schools at budget hearings.

"We need to tell them we need their help," Speaks said.