From a member of the Beaufort County School Board: Budgets, iPads, elections and school-related issues

in Schools/Voices by

By Bill Evans
The budget has been submitted and approved by the Beaufort County Council for the 2012-13 school year. My intent here is to present some insights or background into the two primary issues that came up during the budget discussions. The millage increase met some understood resistance but, let’s shine a light on the background to the request. Although most saw the purchase of iPads as the primary reason for the increase, history for this really goes back to the last reassessment in 2009.
When any governmental entity goes through a reassessment, one of the key concepts is maintaining revenue neutrality, that is, not realizing a windfall or a loss as a result of the action. In 2009, the school district, to my knowledge, was the only tax-supported organization that actually lost money; the district was rolled backed to 90.26 mills when it should have only been rolled backed to 93.26 to maintain a revenue neutral position (prior to reassessment the millage for operations was 102.6 mills). Although this had the result of forcing the board and administration to make some cuts that were probably necessary, it also meant that we lost about $3.5-$4 million dollars a year in revenue. Keep in mind that just like other governmental bodies, the school district has to absorb growth in services and mandated increases in health insurance, salaries as required by the state and other annual costs such as utilities or fuel for buses. These costs typically run between $3.5 and $6 million per year. When revenue stays the same, the district has to act just like you do with your personal accounts; we make decisions that ensure that we are not spending more than we are taking in (although we have had to use some of our reserves for just this reason over the last several years).
This year with the mandated increases from the state and continually rising costs in other areas, the district finally hit a wall in regards to cutting further the services it offers. Remember, during the last several years of lost revenue, the district has eliminated almost 200 jobs (more than 35 at the district office) and trimmed many successful or promising programs such as the reading, math and science coaches as well as the additional days at our three most challenged schools. Additionally, we closed one school and sought to consolidate others.
Although the iPads were out there as the visible reason for the millage increase, in reality, it is my opinion that the district needed to try and “claw back” some of the lost millage from 2009. The point was made during the council’s discussion that this millage increase would be permanent. Keep in mind that the same rationale can be applied to the 2009 rollback which looked to be permanent as well.
With a new reassessment coming up in 2013, it would seem reasonable to have the 2009 reassessment adjusted for revenue neutrality before a new millage rate is established.
Debate over iPads
In regards to the iPads themselves, there is room for debate. All of us see that continuing to grow technology skills and accessibility to technology is important to the growth of our students.
Those who argued against the purchase of iPads at this time made some good points. They asked if the savings and capabilities are really there yet, or if there was enough availability of eBooks to replace textbooks as a means of realizing some savings. We know that this is coming.
We know that we will begin some initial savings by using less paper and requiring students to submit their work electronically. But what drove my decision-making was costs and available funds. We will not achieve all the potential savings this first year, but more and more, books and other expensive items will become available digitally. We had one time funds from federal sources to pay for about two-thirds of the iPads now. In a year or two, the costs might be lower but the entire bill would have to be paid with general fund dollars, those raised by millage charged only to a small group within our community, or by creating more debt under capital borrowing.
I understand the frustration that non-resident homeowners and commercial property owners feel about the present system for supporting the operations of the school district; I too own rental property and see the increases. However, that is a problem that needs to be resolved in Columbia. Chairman Weston Newton of the County Council has argued this point for years; his election to the Statehouse, along with the continuing efforts by Sen. Davis, Rep. Erickson and the other members of our delegation, are the only way to fix this problem permanently.
School board elections
Speaking of elections, that brings me to the substantial topic of the upcoming board elections this November. Many have spoken through letters to the editor, opinion pieces and blogs about the need to make wholesale changes to the board; that is an issue that the voters will have to decide. I am encouraged by the large number of contested elections for school board that will take place through the summer and into the fall.
My only charge to you, the voters, is to get to know the candidates, and I mean really get to know them. Require them to meet publicly in unbiased debates or question and answer sessions; require them to put their positions on budget, salaries, instructional programs, school choice, leadership, discipline, attendance zones, etc., in writing and out there to be reviewed, analyzed and subject to more discussion. Don’t support someone because you think you know what they may want to do. Make them tell you and then hold them to it if they are elected.
After nearly two years, I can tell you it is more demanding than many think. Many of the issues are very complicated and on occasion you find yourself having to choose between two good solutions or possibly two not so good solutions. You have to think about the entire district — all 20,000 students and all 31 schools. What works well in one place may be a disaster in a different part of the county. You cannot be successful or represent the voters as a single agenda candidate.