Beaufort News

County Council nixes tax hike for schools -- again

For the second time this month, Beaufort County School District officials stood before County Council to request a school tax increase, and for the second time, they walked away disappointed.

Council voted down a motion by a 7-4 margin Monday that would have granted a 1.5 percent school-tax hike, with council members Gerald Dawson, Herbert Glaze, Laura Von Harten and Bill McBride voting for the increase.

School officials said the tax increase would have raised about $1.66 million.

Without that revenue, Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said after the meeting, the Board of Education will have to head back to the drawing board at its June 9 meeting to discuss whether to spend from its reserves or undertake additional cuts.

Truesdale said district officials and school principals have already begun discussing possibilities.

"We can't, in all good conscience, recommend anything that would further impact the classroom directly," she said. "That's where the principals drew the line. They said, 'We do not want to raise class sizes.' "

Several residents, teachers and school board members spoke to council about the vote, most of whom supported the tax hike. Some carried protest signs, such as a red-and-white life preserver labeled "SOS: Support our Schools."

Council Chairman Weston Newton said protesters should spend an equal amount of time writing their state legislators to try to rectify inequities in state education funding.

"The same energy that focused this group to come here tonight ought to be focused on a campaign, a barrage of emails, to the people in Columbia," Newton said.

Councilman Stu Rodman said he didn't think denying a tax increase necessarily means additional cuts to this year's school budget.

"You're sitting on a healthy fund balance, and we're talking about whether we want to use an additional $1.6 (million) of that, in my mind, to avoid a tax increase," Rodman said.

School board vice chairman George Wilson said consultants have told the district it should keep a certain level of reserves if it wants to maintain its credit rating.

"We are right around that area right now," Wilson said. "I don't know how far you expect us to take it down to, but I do know it will have a severe impact in our debt and on our interest rates."

Council has expressed a desire to increase its own reserves, and Councilman Rick Caporale said that goal, too, might become a casualty of the down economy.

"I don't think either body is going to be able to hold onto the fund balances that they've got right now," Caporale said. "It's just the nature of the times."