More money still means hard decisions ahead

The Beaufort County School District has received some relatively rare good news on state education funding: An additional $2 million could be headed its way.

Of course, that's only if some specific provisions make it through the budget process, which probably won't wind up until the legislature returns in special session in a couple of weeks.

The additional money could mean the district won't have to find another $1.6 million to cut from its budget after Beaufort County Council refused to raise the district's operations tax rate for the coming fiscal year.

The district already has cut jobs, increased class sizes and lowered school-supply and extracurricular funding. After the county turned down its initial 3 percent increase request, the district suspended pay increases for teachers based on years of service and education levels achieved. It had already suspended these types of pay increases for administrators and principals.

But additional state funding should not mean putting off a decision about closing schools. District schools should be operated as efficiently as possible, not as efficiently as funding will allow.

Quite frankly, the issue of school closings is beginning to give us whiplash.

The board voted in September to consider closing some schools and asked for a report detailing the enrollment and capacity of each school. Beaufort County public schools are about 75 percent full, and the district has more than 6,000 empty seats in its buildings, according to the report.

District staff proposed closing Shell Point Elementary School, but that idea was met with great resistance from parents.

The board decided in February not to close schools for the coming school year, but left open the possibility of closings farther out.

In April, the board reaffirmed it would consider closing one or more schools for the 2012-13 school year if County Council didn't agree to a tax hike.

To the surprise of few, the council said "no" to any tax increase.

Now district staff has come up with eight closing options and heard from the public at three recent meetings. To the surprise of no one, some people strongly objected to options on the table.

The board might not like the hand it's been dealt, but that's the hand it must play.

But more importantly, given the staff cuts, the suspension of pay raises, the supply cuts and the increasing costs to operate schools (the board cut about $5 million from its budget to offset increased operating costs for the coming school year), the district owes it to its students, its staff and county taxpayers to operate its schools more efficiently. With an estimated 6,000 empty seats, that means closing all or part of schools.

That's true with or without a tax increase and with or without additional state funding.

As for that funding, we're with board chairman Fred Washington, who said, "I'd be crazy not to be hopeful. The point is, what's the likelihood of it happening? There is no way for us to talk about monies that might or might not be here because the state budget process is not in."

The school board can't control what legislators do, but it can control how it operates schools in this district.