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School budget: District has option to raise property taxes

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

After lining up $2 million in cuts to balance its operating budget for the coming year, the Georgetown County School District found it has another option: a 1.6 percent rise in property taxes.

State law limits tax increases by local government to the annual rise in the consumer price index plus annual population growth. The Census Bureau estimates the county lost population last year, but consumer prices rose an average of 1.6 percent. For the school district, that means an extra $893,000 could be raised through property taxes.

“It’s nice to know that’s available,” School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said. “I doubt we would push for it next year. I know many, many people are still struggling.”

Board Member Teresa Bennani said she supports a tax increase.

“I absolutely support raising the millage,” she said. “I’ve heard from some pretty conservative members of the community” who also support the idea.

The same state law that caps tax rates also exempts owner-occupied homes from property taxes to fund school operations. Any increase would be paid by owners of non-residential property. That would work out to $10.20 more for every $100,000 of taxable value.

The district will lose $6.1 million in the coming year from federal stimulus money. Those funds pay for 122 employees, including 66 teachers. By shifting funding for some of those positions, and with an anticipated increase in state funding, the district estimates it will be left with a $2 million shortfall.

District staff proposed using funds left over from the current budget to cover $792,000.

Staff cuts at the district office would cover another $351,000.

Cuts in middle school sports, the gifted and talented summer program, driver’s education and caps on photocopies, substitute teachers and outside services covered the balance.

But the middle school sports program will be restored after parents complained.

“They were pretty passionate about this issue,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

The program may be more valuable than the $79,600 it costs, with benefits to attendance, discipline and academics, he said.

“You don’t want to kill the whole program where they’re not excited about coming to school,” said Dozier, who was once a middle school principal. “Middle school can be a real challenge.”

Lisa Johnson, the district finance director, believes the money can be found elsewhere in the budget.

Other options for balancing the budget include drawing on a portion of the district’s $7.

9 million reserve fund, implementing furloughs, raising class size, cutting spending on school resource officers and closing buildings on certain days to save on utility costs.

The board has also considered adopting an electronic agenda, at a savings of $23,000, to cut down on paper, printing and staff time. It took 17 pages in the board’s packet this month to explain that several departments had no requests for additional funds in the coming year.

Dumm said he liked many of the cost-cutting ideas that the staff has come up with. “Sometimes a crisis is a good thing because it helps you focus on what is really necessary,” he said.

A broader list of budget cuts includes closing or consolidating two rural elementary schools.

The board heard this week from parents and community members that want to keep those schools open.

“Come up with a plan to keep our school open,” said Rochelle Geathers, a parent from Browns Ferry Elementary, a school with 182 students.

Marvin Neal of Plantersville, where the school has 136 students, said he favored cuts to athletics and salaries before closing schools. “I see a lot of things in there that don’t demand the priority education does,” he said.

He said one reason for the low enrollment at the school was that the district grants transfers to parents who want to move their children to a school closer to work or after-school care.

Neal, the 10th of 13 children, said his mother worked in Myrtle Beach, but never considered moving her children out of the Plantersville school.

Dozier said the district’s transfer policy is limited by its agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to maintain a school desegregation plan. That agreement also establishes attendance lines for county schools, and the district plans to hire an outside firm to review those lines, he said.

“It might give us some ideas of what might be the best way to go,” Dumm said. “It makes no sense to keep a school open for less than 100 kids.”

The district can’t do the work in-house because it has cut back the planning staff. “Nobody in the district really has the time or the expertise,” he said.

Palmetto gold
Waccamaw High was one of 30 high schools in the state to receive a Palmetto Gold award for performance.

The awards are based on the state’s annual report cards.

Waccamaw received an “excellent” overall rating on its 2010 report card.

The school also received a gold award for closing the gap in achievement for black and low-income students. Carvers Bay High earned a gold award in that category, too.

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