Important message found in school budget process

The parade of horribles has begun, as the Beaufort County Board of Education marches out its list of things you might have to live without in a difficult budget year.

Teaching positions and extracurricular activities are grand marshals in the annual pageantry. The board this year has added the possiblity of closing a school to help make ends meet.

The response is as predictable as the exercise itself: Those who benefit most from the budget item to be sacrified cry out loudest.

The cynic might argue this is mere gamesmanship: School board members, who need Beaufort County Council approval for their annual budget, are simply softening up the public and ratcheting up the pressure on County Council to approve a tax rate increase.

But the school board deserves the benefit of the doubt because formulating a budget is genuinely confounding.

The board must plan without knowing for sure whether a state or federal funding source will dry up or at what level it might come through, what unexpected cost might crop up at mid-year or even whether revenue collections will match projections.

So there is some value to all this. Reminding people what they're paying for helps in making informed decisions.

What undermines the exercise is the all-too-frequent quest for a free lunch. That is the attempt to make someone else pay for the benefit you receive -- for example, football pads if you're a student, a school building if you're a parent or voters' esteem if you're a board member.

Outrage sparked by the mere suggestion of saving administrative costs by closing Shell Point Elementary School illustrates the point.

Bear in mind, the district has far more building capacity than it needs, which would be a problem even if budget shortfalls were not upon us. Shell Point might or might not be the most logical school to close, but those who think parents at Beaufort Elementary, Okatie Elementary or Hilton Head Island Elementary schools would have reacted any differently are kidding themselves.

Surely, the board members -- engaged in the impossible task of meeting infinite demands with finite resources -- know this. Yet, they now are poised to nix any proposal to close a school after board member Ronald Speaks on Tuesday asked for a vote to that effect at the board's Feb. 1 meeting.

An affirmative vote would raise questions. First, if the board lacks the will to close a school in the face of localized opposition, why did it go through this exercise at all? If the board is incapable of dealing with so obvious an inefficiency as extra capacity in most of its schools, how will it possibly steel its spine for cuts that result in as much outrage but even less savings?

The school board anticipates a $4 million shortfall this school year and a shortage of nearly $7 million next year. We can only pay our way out of these arrears. A community might have to pay with a school. A teacher might have to pay with a job. A school might have to pay with an athletics team.

Or perhaps we'll force the people already paying much of the freight to pay more. The County Council could increase the property tax rate that covers school operating costs, a burden borne by commercial property owners and non-resident homeowners. (Read: Those who don't vote.)

However, this "solution" is illusory. It imposes indirect costs on everyone that are very real. Jobs might be lost or not created by local businesses.

Property values could decline and intellectual capital could flee when part-time residents relocate.

Moreover, the notion that anyone will escape a budget shortfall unscathed is fantasy. We must face reality and accept the sacrifices that come with it.