Beaufort News

Beaufort County schools shorted $9 million since 2002, district officials say

Beaufort County public schools have been shorted about $9.9 million since 2002 because of an accounting oversight, school district officials say.

County Council had scheduled final approval of the district's budget for June 13, but its Finance Committee voted 5-1 Monday, after meeting with district officials, to recommend delaying action so it could study the matter.

"We have not looked at it yet, and I would wait to hear from our council and our administrative people and our financial people to see if they have a true claim on it," said Councilman Stu Rodman, committee chairman, after the meeting. "We're just starting the process, but we owe it to them to understand what their concern is."

Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said the school district would like to fix the problem going forward but isn't asking to recover the whole $9.9 million.

"We're not saying that we're going to recapture all that," said school board Chairman Fred Washington. "But I think it's important to establish what the number is."

The problem has occurred in one of the county's tax-increment financing districts, where future growth in property tax revenue is used to redevelop an area.According to accounting rules for TIFs, schools should receive money based on the number of students who live within the TIF district, said Charles Talbert, a consultant with McAbee, Talbert, Halliday & Co., who was hired by the Board of Education.

The New River TIF district, formed to help finance the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Technical College of the Lowcountry campuses on U.S. 278 near Sun City Hilton Head, contained no school district students when it was created in 2002.

Today, the area contains 148 students, and district officials say that growth hasn't been accounted for.

"It's been five years now that the TIF has owed to the school system approximately $1.5 million each year," Truesdale said. "We're supposed to be made whole by the TIF and have not been."

Washington suggested a joint session of County Council and the school board to hammer out an agreement.

The district projects TIF funds could add about $1.7 million to next fiscal year's budget. About $1.1 million of that is already listed as revenue in the budget that school officials have presented to County Council, Washington said.Council has twice denied a tax increase for schools this year, and Washington said an agreement on TIF money could bolster the budget and prevent a final showdown over a tax hike.

"Hopefully, in the process of having this discussion, we can find a way that we might not need that," he said, adding that "if we find some resolution there, that's going to help us significantly."