By Bill Evans
The hot topics on the Board’s plate and in the community are the budget and the possible closure of schools; in reality the two are deeply connected. While I am sure that some will look at the return to the study of school closures as a response to the County Council’s decision not to grant the district a tax increase, in reality it is a topic that has never left the dialogue among many of the Board members. No matter what your personal feelings are, it is clear that public sentiment and the Council’s votes are not there to support a tax increase of any size no matter who might have to pay.
As reviewed in a previous article, the Board made serious cuts back in February to programs that are clearly impacting the performance of students in a positive way. The targeted reductions of $6.8 million have actually produced about $5.4 million in savings; much of this is due to the fact that many of the higher paid literacy, math and science coaches cut from those programs have been returned to the classroom at a rate usually much higher than the cost of a new teacher. Recently, the Board voted not to grant the teachers who are eligible a step increase for years of service; this is in addition to the teachers who are at the top of the schedule and are not eligible for step increases and administrators who have had their salaries frozen at this year’s levels for next year. Support staffs have not had any increases for three years. The reductions in the “coaching” program and the increase in class size are not in place yet, so that we might gauge the impact; one has to believe that there will be some negative impact to these actions.
The issue of school closures, I prefer calling them “consolidations” since we are not going to stop teaching students we are only discussing doing it in a different location, can positively impact the budget for well into the future. As we consolidate schools, we will certainly experience savings on utilities and in those support positions that are redundant. We will make better use of those facilities that we continue to use and in some cases may even be able to sell property which of course will provide new one time money to the district or serve as a bridge until the existing weak tax code and funding formulas can be addressed and reformed.
As we move forward with the study of possible consolidations or changes in attendance zones, we will be guided by the original plan presented last November and new ideas, which I am sure will bubble up through the committee of district and site administrators, SIC members and community members. It is understandable that some of the discussions and input will have an emotional nature to them, we are talking about children and where they go to school. Let me make two points from my own experience with similar actions in other schools districts; education is primarily a factor of the quality of leadership and staff at the school and committed and supportive parents, walls do not teach students, teachers do and as we move students their teachers will move with them. Second, if we don’t find permanent savings in our budget then we will be back at this every year peeling away another layer of program or adding more students to each class; it is analogous to tearing off a bandage, you can do it all at once and have a short period of pain or you can do it slowly and spread the pain over a long period of time.
On June 9th we will meet again to look at the current budget and the shortfall we are experiencing primarily due to the low tax collection rate. All of this is again understandable in this economy, but the projected rate that the County Council established at 98.6% is presently coming in at less than 90%; we expect that by the end of the year, June 30th, we will see a final collection rate of about 94%-95%, the difference equates to roughly $1 million for each percentage point we are short. You can do the math; we are looking at a shortfall of around $4 million. My personal position is that we make up the difference using our fund balance/reserves. Although this may mean putting ourselves in a position of paying higher interest rates when we borrow, we are not borrowing much at this time and any additional debt incurred is at least paid by all taxpayers through the debt service part of their tax bills and not just those with second homes or commercial property as is the case with operating funds.
We have to see this through, there is no magic cure and we are still probably two years away from seeing any reform to the tax code that will bring more funding to Beaufort County. I ask you all to stay informed, listen to facts and watch actions, please do not get caught up in speculation and rumor. Where you can, bring ideas to the committee; you can do that through me at any time or with the committee members, we will have at least three from the Beaufort HS attendance zone, as will each of the other high school zones.
I can be reached at email@example.com. and I am more than open to meeting with individuals or groups that would like to discuss my position on any of these issues.