School board cannot turn blind eye to consolidation

The Beaufort County Board of Education took a good, hard chop at its budget Friday, voting to increase class sizes and reduce funding for school supplies, extracurricular activities and a bonus to teachers who earn National Board Certification.

But that almost certainly won't be enough to stave off another nasty showdown with the Beaufort County Council, which must approve its budget.

The school board approved about $7 million in cuts, significant progress in beating back a menacing shortfall that could top $12 million -- $5.6 million in the current budget year, and as much as $6.8 million in 2011-12.

However, eliminating altogether the gap it narrowed will be difficult so long as the board insists upon swinging with one hand tied behind its back. That is precisely the result of its 6-4 vote Feb. 15 to end any discussion of closing schools, despite data proving the district has a glut of instructional space.

Shuttering a school could save as much as $900,000 in one fell swoop, and refusing to eliminate so obvious an inefficiency further weakens an argument that won no converts on County Council a year ago.

Specifically, the district's current budget model assumes it will be allowed to increase taxes 2 percent to 3 percent in the next fiscal year, but the council denied a similar request last summer even before the extent of the district's over-building had been quantified.

So what sort of a reception does the board expect from the council if it hasn't exhausted all other options before it asks again for a tax increase not likely to be popular among voters?

The pity of the vote to end school-closure discussions is that the alternative wasn't a commitment to close a school, let alone a specific suggestion to shutter Shell Point Elementary that has so riled parents and faculty there. The alternative was to keep exploring the option and win credibility by confronting tough choices.

Instead, for its own political ease, the school board will shift the difficult questions and fiduciary responsibility to County Council.

"I feel like we should go ahead and move on so these parents and students will be happy knowing that their school is going to be open," said Ron Speaks, who represents the Shell Point area and voted with the majority.

Yes, it is unfortunate that continuing the discussions would mean disproportionate uncertainty for one particular school community. However, it is exponentially more important for the board to keep its finances glued together than the nerves of a narrow constituency.

After all, no matter how genuine and legitimate the concerns of the Shell Point community, its children would have a public-school education available to them next year, whether in their current building or at a consolidated school where many of the Shell Point teachers presumably would work.

Is that so terrible a trade-off to avoid a tax hike?

Maybe if you live in Shell Point. Maybe if you're the resident of an owner-occupied home, who doesn't pay property taxes to support school operations. But those who own a businesses or a second home won't be thrilled to subsidize the district's inefficiency, and there will be consequences borne by all when those people raise prices, cut jobs or move away because of their tax burden.

Unfortunately, should County Council again resist a tax increase, the school board then will have no option but to make deeper cuts to programs or personnel, or tap its reserve fund and thereby increase the cost of its future borrowing.

It doesn't matter how you slice it -- if the school board won't cut fat, we all will surrender some lean.