A realistic look at public education in Beaufort County

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By Jim Bequette
During recent 2013 budget discussions, there was often misinformation spoken and blogged about Beaufort County School District spending and academic performance.  This article will address school finances and a second will be forthcoming on the improved student performance in the district after hiring Dr. Valerie Truesdale as Superintendent in 2007.
Consider what Dr. Truesdale has   dealt with in making improvements:
• Fewer Employees: School Central office staff was reduced by 33% at a savings of $1.6 million per year.
• More students: 900 additional students in recent years require teachers, books and supplies.
• Cost Per Student: Beaufort County is not the highest in the state, as some have stated.  According to the SC Department of Education, there are 16 districts with a higher cost-per-student.
• More Schools: Six new schools, caused by rapid approved growth by the county and Bluffton, require staffing, utilities and maintenance of several million dollars. The school district has spent nearly $250 million in today’s dollars to build adequate schools in Bluffton alone.
• Reduced the Use of Mobile Classrooms: More than 60 temporary buildings (mobile classrooms) were eliminated in the last four years.
• Lost Revenue: The district lost millions of dollars of tax revenue from people switching from non-owner occupied to owner occupied homes.  Act 388 failed to provide for increased sales tax revenue for these switches.
• New Funding Requirements: When Riverview commenced, the school district funded it according to state law.  In 2012, it was $3 million and is budgeted for $4 million in 2013.    Riverview students come from a combination of home schooling, other private schools and public schools.  BCSD can not eliminate a teacher for losing only one or two students from a class to a charter school so the only savings to BCSD is books and supplies.
• Low Tax Rate: The Beaufort County School District has the lowest school millage rate in the state so tax bills are actually lower than any other district.  For instance, the total millage for BCSD schools is 114.7. Compare this to the Columbia area where Richland 1 is 284.4 and Richland 2 is 342.30. A  non-owner occupied home owner in Richland 2 would pay $4,108 in school taxes for a house worth $200,000, but would pay only one third of that or $1,376 in Beaufort.
• High Cost of Living: Beaufort County has the highest cost of living in SC for housing and utilities according to IRS statistics released this year but still has the lowest tax rate in the state.  The cost of living in the Columbia area is 21.5% lower.
• Minimal State Funding: Under the state formula for distributing Education Finance Act monies, Beaufort County was the only school district receiving no money for several years. Thanks to the leadership efforts of State Sen. Tom Davis, the school district received close to $600,000 in 2012. Compare this to the $109 million received by the two Columbia-area districts.
• New Cost: $75,000 more is paid to the county for drainage fees because of new schools.
Under the leadership of Dr. Valerie Truesdale and the Beaufort County School Board, the additional costs, more students and reduced tax revenue were absorbed without significant tax or fee increases to homeowners, or businesses. This has been excellent financial management while improving student performance.
Please remember the increased cost for construction and operation of new schools is as a result of population growth over which the school district can only respond but has no control.
Regardless of the reason, the school district over the last few years — while faced with an increasing student population, overcrowded facilities, reduced financial support and implementation of an illogical and unfair state funding mechanism which demanded high results while providing minimal funding — has managed to improve the quality of education available in our public schools.
Jim Bequette is a retired CPA and former Lady’s Island School Board Member.