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School: Board looks to projects' budget for funds

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

A bill in the state legislature paves the way for the Georgetown County School District to use borrowed money for operating expenses in the 2011 fiscal year.

But, if the district takes advantage of the added flexibility, state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex issued a caveat.

“If you allow them to use it for operations,” he said, “it would become a rule, not the exception to it.”

While moving borrowed money from Georgetown’s capital projects budget to pay employees’ salaries could keep teachers employed, Rex didn’t want to see school districts fail to renovate schools or build new ones, if needed.

That’s why this flexibility should only be allowed for only one year, he said.

If it is used, it would only be for the 2011 fiscal year, Georgetown County School Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

“We pretty much built the budget without that,” he said. “I guess at this point you’d like to have the option if you needed it. Who knows where we’re going to be in September or October?”

The district is currently trying to create a budget that would let it operate on 1995 levels of funding in a 21st-century economy. By law, it can’t raise taxes, so it relies on money, often accompanied by mandates, from the state and federal government to pay operating expenses.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the state should be giving the district $2,900 per student, according to the base-student cost formula that calculates how much South Carolina should give districts every year.

However, the state is only giving Georgetown $1,630 per student.

“We’re $3 million short this year, and next year, we’re operating on a very limited budget,” Dozier said. “It’s not like we have any extra money or we wouldn’t be where we are today. We’re just trying to deal with a difficult situation. There aren’t any good options.”

Which is why he and Board Members Eric Allen, Benny Elliott, Arthur Lance and Elery Little discussed the idea of getting legislative approval to use capital expenses for operational purposes on a recent school-related trip to Columbia.

Dozier suggested the idea to state Rep. Vida Miller after speaking to the district’s attorneys to see if it was legal.

It was not an issue he brought before the board because the short legislative session only gave the local delegation a limited window of time to propose and pass a bill before the district had to finalize its budget in June.

“Clearly, there wasn’t any intent to hide or back-door any of this,” Dozier said. “Before you did anything you’d have to vote on it, but if you didn’t legally have the right to do it, how could you vote on it anyway?”

Miller proposed the bill and Rep. Carl Anderson signed on to co-sponsor it late last month. The House and Senate both approved it, but it waits for the governor’s signature.

If the bill is approved and brought before the school board, Board Member Teresa Bennani doesn’t know if she’ll vote to use the flexibility it provides.

“For me, I’m not in favor of using capital expenditures to make a budget unless it’s absolutely necessary,” she said.

School Board Chairman Jim Dumm is open to the option.

“I never want to rule out anything for the future. I think it’s very unwise,” he said. “But it may not be something that we need to rely on. We’ll just wait and see.”

At the school board’s next meeting Tuesday night, neither Dozier nor Dumm know if the bill will be brought up for discussion.

But Dumm said Georgetown County Republican Party chairman Tom Swatzel’s request for more financial transparency will definitely come up.

This week, in a formal e-mail addressed to Dumm, Swatzel asked him and the board to post all revenues and expenditures, audits and fund balances on the school district’s Web site.

“The information came to light when the Georgetown GOP tried to access school district budget and board meeting information to better understand the motivation behind legislation sponsored by state Reps. Vida Miller and Carl Anderson,” Swatzel wrote in the e-mail.

When Swatzel looked at the site, a list of federal and state grants was available.

The district also provided the capital projects plan and budget information from years past, with the exception of 2010.

If the public wants more information, the Web site directs people to schools or a local library where copies of the budget are kept.

Compared to the Georgetown County government’s Web site, the school district’s financial transparency is lacking, according to Swatzel.

The county has line-item expenses listed on its Web site as well as its most recent audit.

To remedy the situation, Swatzel asked for the board to put all financial and audit information, as well as detailed notes from board meetings, online.

“All decision documents available to board members for meeting agenda items, excluding executive session items, should also be available,” he said.

Dumm said the request sounded reasonable.

“The terms in there we can meet fairly easily, and some of them, we’ll certainly take into consideration,” he said.

“I always feel like we’re open and above-the-board. We’re also the only government entity that has all of our meetings on TV.”

The board meets at 7 p.m. at Georgetown High School.

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