Leaders at ACE to finalize budget amid school board concerns

The next budget for the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence should be decided at a meeting of the school's board Wednesday night -- two months past its February deadline.

Whether the Beaufort County Board of Education will approve that budget -- amid concerns about how the school manages its money -- is unclear, according to Jim Beckert, who serves on both the ACE board and the Beaufort County School District board.

Beaufort board members "would not look favorably on a budget presentation that has not been fully vetted with all questions adequately answered as to the direction, purpose and focus out at ACE," Beckert said.

The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the cafeteria of the school at 80 Low Country Drive in Okatie.ACE was created in 1977 and offers 11 career and technology education programs, including agriculture, hospitality, construction and automotive technology.

Beaufort County typically contributes about $2.5 million to ACE's budget each year, while the Jasper County School District pays a little more than $1 million.

However, several Beaufort County board members, including Chairman Bill Evans, say they are worried about several financial decisions that have been made at the school in the past year.That includes a decision to pay Jasper County school officials for some bookkeeping at the school -- work Beaufort County is legally obligated to perform and that it would have taken care of for free, according to superintendent Jeff Moss.

It is not clear how much the Jasper County employees were paid to perform this work. The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette submitted public-records requests with ACE on Tuesday. Those responses would be due by April 29, according to the state's Freedom of Information Act.

However, some Beaufort County board members defend assigning that work to Jasper County School District employees -- Michael Rivers, Beaufort County board member and ACE board vice chairman, said Jasper County officials were brought in because they use the same software as ACE.

But Beckert says Beaufort County finance officials know how to use the system, too.

"That decision was made without board approval and was ill-advised in the misuse of the funds that Beaufort County sends to ACE to operate the facility," Beckert said.

The ACE board also recently approved adding a human resources position at the school with a salary of as much as $72,000. Moss said that Beaufort County would have provided those services at no cost, as well.

Many Beaufort County board members said money budgeted to the school could be better applied toward about $10 million in upgrades to its facilities, equipment and programs.

Moss said he had hoped the ACE administrators would rework the school's budget to find money for those upgrades. However, that might take time, and the ACE board is already behind in passing a budget.

Jasper County and ACE board member Tedd Moyd said he hopes the two districts can agree on a future for the school and a budget to achieve that.

Asked about votes to approve a new human resources position and to farm out financial work to the Jasper school district, Moyd said "the board voted on it. Whenever the majority rules, I sometimes don't approve of it, but if that's the majority then I swallow it and move on."

Moyd voted to add the human resources position; Beckert was the only of six board members to vote against it. The board was not consulted on the decision to let Jasper County do some financial work.

The ACE board must submit its budget to both the Beaufort and Jasper boards for their approval.A decision from the Beaufort district could come within the next month, as it works through its own budget, Moss said.

The state law that created the academy as a partnership between the Beaufort and Jasper school districts requires each district's board to approve the school's budget. If either side balks, then the partnership would dissolve and one district could decide to exclusively run the school.

"Our board not approving the budget is entirely possible," Beckert said. "And understanding some of the personalities on our board, I could say probable."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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