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Schools: No tax increase proposed in $75 million budget

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

There is a raise for employees, but no tax increase for property owners, in the proposed school district budget for the coming year.

The Georgetown County School Board is still considering requests from elementary principals to expand pre-kindergarten classes to a full day. At a meeting this week, Board Member Arthur Lance told staff to “look hard” for the money, although no cost estimates have been presented.

Board Member Teresa Bennani said she was disappointed that pre-school initiatives were no longer part of the district’s five-year strategic plan, which was hastily presented to the board last week at a meeting scheduled before an awards ceremony for district students.

“That is an area where we could be more successful,” Bennani said, but added “it’s like planting fruit trees. You’ve got to wait five to 10 years to see the fruit.”

Diane Wingate, the district’s director of accountability, said pre-school initiatives were in past plans, but never implemented.

“This time we only included what we thought we could implement,” she said.

Superintendent Randy Dozier said funds for expanded pre-school programs are available, but principals opted to use the money to keep class sizes smaller in elementary grades.

“There is such pressure to do well on scores for your testing that they continue to emphasize small classes,” he said.

The proposed $74.7 million district operating budget shows revenue up 4 percent from the current year. State revenue is projected to rise 14 percent, although the state budget is still pending in the Senate and enrollment figures, which determine the district’s share of state funding, are incomplete, said Lisa Johnson, the district finance director.

The budget passed in the House includes additional per-pupil funds and money for employee pay increases. The district funded a 2 percent pay raise last year, but it didn’t take effect until three months into the fiscal year.

Funding last year’s increase for a full year and an additional raise this year will add $1.9 million to costs. The district will also have to pay more for retirement and health insurance benefits.

The proposed budget includes nine new teaching and support positions and funding for three and a half positions in a district-wide teacher pool. But those are offset by the loss of 10 other teaching positions due to falling enrollment in some areas. Johnson said the district would absorb those cuts through attrition rather than layoffs.

There are several unknown costs in the budget. There is no increase in cost for utilities or property insurance. With construction of new facilities, such as the Waccamaw High auditorium where the board met this week, the district will need to increase its coverage, Johnson said.

Also, a grant that funds deputies in the county middle and high schools has run out. It will cost $200,000 to put those deputies back in the eight schools next year. A $150,000 grant for family literacy has also run out. It will cost $300,000 to fund that program next year, and administrators would like it to continue. They are awaiting word on $85,000 in new grant applications.

“Right now, it’s a balanced budget,” Dozier said. “I can’t guarantee that after we’ve heard all these requests.”

But rather than raise property taxes, “we do have a decent reserve” which could be tapped for one-time expenses, he said.

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