Beaufort News

Should school board have financial independence from County Council?

Annual showdowns between the Beaufort County Board of Education and County Council, which has authority over part of the school district's budget, have become nearly as predictable as April showers and May flowers.

But if the school board had the authority to levy its own property taxes, would those battles be avoided?

A proposal to give the board fiscal autonomy, which seems to surface every few years, again was discussed Monday by council's Finance Committee.

But board Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said the district isn't ready to make that leap.

Council currently has oversight over only part of the district's budget -- money raised through local property taxes. The school district has authority over the rest, said Councilman Stu Rodman.

"The way it is right now, we have split authority," Rodman said. "And therefore I think we have poor accountability to the citizens of this county because of the way that we actually do it."

Giving the board autonomy might also help avoid bickering between the two bodies, he said.

This year's budget debate came to head May 23, when council voted down a 1.5 percent tax hike for the district. A handful of teachers and parents protested at the meeting. Some carried signs, such as a red-and-white life preserver labeled "SOS: Support our Schools."

Washington said fiscal autonomy is a future objective, but it isn't something the board is interested in pursuing now.

"I'd be lying to you if I said it's not the ultimate goal to do that," he said. "But I don't think the time is right."

Washington said the two bodies should instead focus on improving their relationship and resolving disagreements, such as how big the district's reserves should be and what tax-collection rate it should assume.

For fiscal autonomy to take effect, local legislation would have to be passed by the S.C. General Assembly.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said to his knowledge local legislators haven't discussed the issue recently, but it might come up at a delegation meeting later this year.

Davis said his primary concern is to ensure that any discussion of fiscal autonomy is open and transparent to residents.

"Aside from that, I'm interested in hearing what the merits and demerits of autonomy would be," he said.

When voters were last asked to weigh in through an advisory referendum more than 20 years ago, 67 percent voted against fiscal autonomy for the board.

According to figures presented by Rodman, about a third of the state's 85 school districts are like Beaufort County and do not have fiscal autonomy. Another third, including the districts in Charleston and Horry counties, have unlimited authority over their finances and are beholden only to voters and statutory caps on tax hikes. The rest fall somewhere in between and have limited autonomy.

Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

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