Budget process inquiry should await AG's opinion

No one should expect a newly created panel of local lawmakers to shed much light on the process of setting the Beaufort County School District budget.

Nor should anyone expect a great shift in dynamics between the school board and County Council as a result of the committee's inquiry.

The officials on the committee -- Reps. Shannon Erickson, Andy Patrick and Curtis Brantley -- might be sincere in their efforts, but this issue is decades old, and substantive change in the status quo will only come when the school district gets financial independence.

If we don't want that, then we can expect more arguing and more finger-pointing between County Council and the school board about who is at fault on any given issue. That isn't a statement of support for fiscal autonomy, but a statement of fact.

Right now, we're waiting for the state attorney general to answer the school board's inquiry about what legal authority, if any, County Council has over the district's budget. Until we see that response, lawmakers should hold off.

We've already been through a similar exercise of legislative inquiry. In 2002, then state Sen. Scott Richardson sought position papers from the school board and County Council on whether the board should have fiscal autonomy after the state Education Oversight Committee recommended legislators give it to all school districts. Twenty-three school boards have complete independence; 36 have limited autonomy or a cap set by law; and 26, including Beaufort County, have to get approval from another entity.

The school board responded then it must have the freedom to tax and spend without County Council oversight. The council opposed autonomy, saying that oversight was an appropriate "check and balance." It also recommended a referendum. That didn't happen.

The only role for lawmakers is to change state law. We don't need them to direct local officials in how they should do the jobs we elected them to do. That was supposed to stop with the establishment of Home Rule three decades ago. If we don't like how they're doing it, we can vote them out.

The committee is in response to concerns from Shell Point Elementary School parents who oppose a proposal to close that school. They say they can't get clear answers to their questions about an expected $4 million budget shortfall, which led to the closing discussion.

County Council rejected the district's request to raise taxes on non-resident homes and commercial and personal property by about 2 percent to fund the operating budget for this school year. The council told the school board to use its reserves to close the gap.

At the delegation committee's first meeting Thursday, County Councilman Stu Rodman, also a former school board member, suggested three legislative actions:

  • Give County Council more authority over the district's operating budget.
  • Appoint the Legislative Delegation as a "court of last resort" to settle disputes.
  • Give the school board the power to levy taxes, but only if voters approve.
  • As for the first suggestion, the council has enough on its plate managing its own financial affairs.

    The second suggestion is a bad one. We don't need lawmakers parachuting in on complicated local school finances. It turns Home Rule on its head.

    The third suggestion might be fine. Put it on the ballot during the next general election. Let's see what people want. In 1987, the last time voters were asked, the answer was a resounding "no."

    The school board insists it's not asking for financial independence even though its inquiry to the attorney general asserts that the council has no statutory or constitutional authority over its finances. We've long suspected board members don't want to ask voters because they think the answer again will be "no."

    Let's get the attorney general's answer before anyone makes suggestions or takes action, including this committee of lawmakers.