Education

Beaufort Co. auditor: Some taxpayers may be overcharged by school district next year

After rent and food, Beaufort Co. school nurses, social workers are left with change

Beaufort County School District employees talk about the shortfalls in their salaries.
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Beaufort County School District employees talk about the shortfalls in their salaries.

Despite twice lecturing the Beaufort County Board of Education on the size of the school district’s proposed budget over the past few weeks, County Council voted Monday night to accept the board’s full request for $254 million.

Council also agreed to raise taxes for county property owners on behalf of the schools — however, now the district and the county are arguing over the math.

County auditor Jim Beckert said Tuesday that Monday’s night decision means the school district would be overcharging some county taxpayers in the county by more than $12 million next year.

The school district disagrees with that prediction and says the county has consistently shorted the district by millions of dollars over the past decade.

The school district’s budget passed Monday night with an 8-2 vote. Council members Chris Hervochon and Michael Covert, both of whom represent areas of Bluffton, voted no; council member Gerald Dawson was absent.

In the weeks leading up to the final vote, Council urged the school board to trim the budget, but never specified an amount to cut.

Although school board members David Striebinger and John Dowling had suggested cutting 2 percent, or $5 million, from the budget proposal, the board submitted its latest plan Monday after cutting just $3,000.

Several teachers and parents spoke in favor of the school district’s budget Monday night, praising the board of education’s decision to reallocate $1.6 million in spending from travel, drug testing and school supplies to instructional coaches and data clerks.

“We strongly recommend that County Council support the funding of our school district budget,” said Celena Dupree, the president of the Beaufort County Educators Association, during public comment. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Council decided Monday to separate the property tax rate vote from the approval of the budget, citing recent discussions over what exactly that tax rate should be.

The county is responsible for $149 million of the $254 million school budget, which is mostly collected through property taxes imposed on owners of secondary residences, businesses, vehicles and other properties.

“Under any circumstance, I think in the next two to three months we’re going to have to go back and understand some of these calculations,” Council Chairman Stu Rodman said Monday. “Because there’s actually some different opinions from various people across the district, including the (school) district, the (county) auditor, the treasurer and the county staff.”

Beckert, the county’s auditor, says the conflict with the district stems from a difference in how they’re calculating the rate at which property taxes are collected.

According to Beckert’s records, 95.6 percent of school district taxes billed for the 2018-19 year had been collected by May 31.

He said that if the collection rate stayed the same in the next year, and the property tax rate was kept at the 114.3 millage rate the district requested, the school district would receive $12 million more than the $149 million the county is responsible for in the budget.

But school district chief financial officer Tonya Crosby said that the taxes that were actually collected by the county only covered 88 percent of the locally funded portion of the 2018-19 school budget, which totaled $143.7 million.

“They only billed $140 million. Our budget is $143.7 million,” Crosby said. “They didn’t even bill enough, much less collect enough.”

Beckert disputes this and says the district is simply wrong.

He estimated that the school district’s property tax rate for 2019-20 should be around 107 or 108 mills — which, for owners of a $300,000 secondary home, for instance, would amount to a $90 increase on the $3,150 they’re already paying toward schools.

The property tax increase approved Monday night, which took the millage rate from 104.6 to 114, would bump that amount by $270.

Council has asked members of the South Carolina Department of Revenue to clarify how the tax rate should be collected.

The discussion will be held in a public meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday at County Council Chambers.

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.
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