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Schools: Budget passes, but details still uncertain

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Spending on Georgetown County public schools is up 16 percent in the five years since the Great Recession even as the number of students has declined. The operating budget adopted this week by the Georgetown County Board of Education is $79.3 million, with just over half coming from local funds.

The budget doesn’t include a property tax increase. It gives the district’s 1,380 employees a raise. But the budget adopted by the board before its July recess doesn’t include details about how full-day pre-K for low income students will be funded or whether the district will grant the request of its elementary school principals to hire an additional technology coach.

“We may need to bring amendments,” said Lisa Johnson, the district finance director. The district’s fiscal year begins July 1.

The one-page operating budget approved by the board lists only four categories of expenditures:

• $70.2 million for salaries and benefits;

• $3.7 million for contract services;

• $3.4 million for supplies;

• and $2 million for “other.”

Board member Richard Kerr noted the personnel costs are up $2.2 million while district revenue is up $2.4 million. “It looks like, overall, all the money we got extra has been spent on salary increases and benefits,” he said.

But Johnson said the raises (averaging 1 percent for administrators and 2 percent for other employees) only cost about $1.5 million. Another $800,000 in revenue “was moved from another pot,” she explained.

The state changed the way it disburses funds to school districts, which left Georgetown County with a net increase of $613,790. There was also a slight increase in per-pupil funding from the state for the district’s 9,307 students. “It wasn’t like we had this great windfall,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

The district also expects to take in an additional $890,000 in local revenue this year. Since 2007, owner-occupied homes have been exempt from property taxes to pay for school operations. An additional penny was added to the state sales tax to make up the lost revenue.

Kerr was still unclear how the revenue shift from the state showed up as new money in the budget. “It’s really out of our control how we spend it,” board chairman Jim Dumm told him.

“Some of it’s controllable, some is beyond our control,” board member Arthur Lance said.

“All of it’s controllable,” Kerr said, adding that if all the additional revenue goes to personnel it doesn’t leave much for other items.

Dumm agreed. “If paper for the copier runs out, you’re stuck,” he said. “That’s the way it is in most businesses.”

“Not really,” Kerr, a former recycling industry executive, said.

Dumm, the director of Tara Hall Home for Boys, said at least that’s the way it is in the nonprofit sector.

Johnson said later that the difficulty with the district budget is that it hinges on the state budget. Although the budget includes funding for full-day pre-K, the program isn’t the same as the one that allowed the expansion of the classes to all county elementary schools last year. And the state budget includes money for technology, but the state Department of Education hasn’t determined if that money can be spent on coaches to help teachers use the technology.

The nine district elementary schools share one coach.

Some district spending also depends who how many students show up when school starts in August. Last year, the district added 41 employees after the board approved the budget in June, said Jon Tester, the human resources director. “These numbers are kind of fluid based on our need,” he said.

Kerr asked for more detailed numbers when the district prepares its fiscal 2016 budget. “I can put in all the detail you like,” Johnson said.

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