Beaufort News

County council vote against tax hike to fund school budget called 'disconcerting'

The vice chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education said County Council's decision Monday to deny a property-tax increase for school operations is "disconcerting."

George Wilson said it was especially bothersome because the vote came before council members had a chance to review details of the proposed school district budget.

The budget ordinance was read "in title only" a week before the school board plans to approve a final version that will reflect more up-to-date information on state requirements and funding. The final version, scheduled for approval by the school board Tuesday, likely will differ from the $175 million preliminary version, Wilson said.

"With that type of lack of openness, I can say the Beaufort County School District, which was in a troubled state before, will be forced to go backward and not forward," Wilson said. "And the district has had a wonderful record of accomplishments and improvement over the past four years."

Board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said the board will consider the council's vote when it approves a final budget Tuesday, as well as what the district might have to give up.

"We will present what we need in order to serve the students of Beaufort County," Washington said.

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

The tax increase would raise an additional $3.3 million, said Phyllis White, the district's operational services chief.

To make up the difference if that isn't allowed, the board could consider additional cuts or pull from its reserves, which its financial adviser has cautioned against.

Washington said the board will consider suspending the annual step salary increases for teachers. Under the state's salary schedule, teachers receive annual raises for additional years of classroom experience and for earning higher academic degrees.

White said the legislature has given school districts permission to skip those raises this year, which would save the district $1.4 million. The board already decided principals and district administrators will not get step increases for a year.

Washington said it's also likely the board will reopen discussions of school closings at the end of this month or in June. The board has voted against closing a public school for next school year, but he said it will consider the option for 2012-13.