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School budget moves forward without pay raise

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Teachers and other Georgetown County School District employees will have to wait at least until the end of the month, and perhaps until August, to find out if they will get their first pay raise in two years. The school board this week agreed to a $69.5 million operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, but didn’t include the pay increases because the district still doesn’t know how much money it will get from the state.

The budget contains no property tax increase, no staff furloughs and no increase in class size. Those were all possibilities when the district faced a $6.1 million shortfall in the budget due to the loss of federal stimulus funds. A freeze on spending in the 2011 budget and waivers from the state that allow special revenue to be used for operations this year closed the gap. The district also cut some programs and will have seven fewer teaching positions because of a drop in enrollment.

With retirements and resignations, the district has been able to offer jobs to almost all its existing staff, officials said. The board approved 10 “open contracts,” spots that will be filled by new employees.

The budget, which will be up for a public hearing and a vote on June 28, is $1.2 million more than the current budget. Although there is no property tax increase, the district will get additional funds from the state program that replaces property taxes on owner-occupied dwellings with sales tax revenue. That’s because the reimbursement was raised to keep pace with the cost of living index.

The board could have raised taxes on non-residential property by an equal amount, but decided against it.

The board has also debated funding other programs that have been cut in recent years, but the consensus now favors a pay increase. That would average out to 2 percent for all staff, according to Lisa Johnson, the district finance director, and cost the district between $900,000 and $1 million.

The district could get an extra $800,000 if the legislature approves school funding at the level proposed by the Senate. The House has proposed a lower amount and the budget bill was in a conference committee this week.

The legislature is due to reconvene next week.

“If we do anything, it will be a pay increase,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “They’ve worked really hard in tough times.”

Although other districts in the state still plan furloughs, others are raising pay. “At some point, we’ll start losing people,” Dozier said.

To get the budget approved before the start of the fiscal year, the board had to settle on a total to advertise for the public hearing, so it decided to move ahead without the pay raises or additional state revenue.

“You can’t put a budget out you’re not sure about,” Dozier told the board.

But he said the budget can be amended.

That could happen on June 28, but if it doesn’t the board isn’t scheduled to meet again until August.

Board Member Teresa Bennani renewed a request for more funding for all-day pre-K classes. That is estimated to cost at least $1.3 million, and she has said a pay raise for employees should come first.

But she said she wants to start looking at numbers for next year. “I’m being persistent here,” she said.

“I would be the first to vote for a 4-year-old program, along with a number of other initiatives,” Dozier said, though he doesn’t actually vote.

“Sounds like a good use for Race to the Top money,” School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said.

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