Citizens question school funding at hotly debated school board meeting

Achieving property-tax relief was an underlying theme last week at the regular meeting of the Berkeley County School Board. Approximately 50 residents packed the room to discuss a sharp hike in property tax bills received last month.

Some citizens, including county council members, have said the school board did not sufficiently consider the impact its current budget had on taxpayers. Many worried about how senior citizens and people on fixed incomes will be able to pay higher property taxes and speakers offered a variety of remedies.

Some, like Wayne Crocker, recommend electing a new school board.

"Everybody who’s got a pencil, you need to write this down. The next election for the school board, the even numbers [districts] will be 2006 in November. For the odd numbers it’ll be in 2008," he said, turning toward board members. "So y’all enjoy your stay while you can."

Board member Jim Royce echoed this sentiment, saying that electing members who are more conservative would ensure budgetary belt-tightening.

"These are your seats. Come get them," said Royce, who pledged to pose tough questions over the next year. He said he’s polled local legislators and county supervisor Jim Rozier about how to keep property taxes from skyrocketing.

"One suggestion was to strip fiscal autonomy from this board and give the county council oversight of our budget," Royce said. "I guarantee you that if Jim Rozier and the county council had oversight of this budget, you wouldn’t have had a tax increase this year. It would have been balanced."

This elicited a retort from an audience member:

"You’d have trailers for schools, too, Jim."

Board member Frances Brewer, whose district includes Daniel Island, defended her votes and challenged critics to get more involved.

"I’ve been on this board for 15 years and I stand firmly behind every action," Brewer said. "You can change my face, but whoever sits here and becomes a true-blue board member, does their homework, and really cares about children, you’ll get the same action you got out of me. I’m sorry that you had to call my house and threaten me that I’ll be removed. And where were you when we did textbook adoptions? We spent your money then? Where were you when we had a public hearing on taxes? It was in the paper. We invited you. Don’t come here tonight and chastise me about my actions when you were invited to take active part."

Some citizens said they support the board and its actions.

Laurie Chevalier Fritz said she’s proud of Berkeley County’s improved academics and buildings. She reminded the audience that the school board is limited in how it can raise funds. Consequently, she said citizens should urge state legislators to change laws to ones that are more equitable.

For example, she suggested that the South Carolina Education Lottery should distribute more funds to K-12 grades. In addition, she believes that developers could share a portion of their profits through impact fees that could help fund schools and roadways.

Tommy McPherson said citizen anger toward the school board is misdirected.

"It’s funny how people on both sides of this issue have a common thread," he said. "It bothers me that people can question your integrity. I’ve heard comments through the years about South Carolina and why we’re at bottom and blah, blah blah. What bothers me is that professional people who can work semantics have been able to deflect attention from where it should be and that is in Columbia. This board has only one bank to draw funds from and that is property taxes. My taxes went up, too, and as far as I’m concerned, that money is well spent."

Lane Brown said the property-tax debate is moving from the school board room to the statehouse in Columbia. And he worries that politicians’ short-term solutions may restrain the autonomy of school districts. Consequently, they could unwittingly jeopardize the credit markets for the district’s bonded-debt obligations and for other districts across the state, he said.

"Are we going to ask the state to step in and guarantee those bonds?" Brown asked. "That’s a $20 billion question. Politicians only want to deal with the emotional solutions that represent short-term, knee-jerk reactions, not the solutions that would protect the integrity – the financial integrity – and the credit standing of these institutions."

Supt. Chester Floyd said that some experts are recommending "circuit breakers" to ease the pain of senior-citizen taxpayers on fixed incomes. To illustrate the need for a remedy, he told a story about a schoolteacher who had bought a retirement house in Myrtle Beach.

"She had the property paid for and guess what happened?" Floyd said. "They built a hotel right next door and the value went up so much over 40 years that the taxes were more than the income she got for her retirement. That shouldn’t have happened in this state."

Floyd said he was sensitive to people on fixed incomes and used his own personal history to illustrate the importance of quality public education.

"I grew up on a farm with uneducated parents," Floyd said. "My mother passed last year. She had a 7th-grade education. [As] one of seven children, we were as poor as you get on a small farm in South Carolina. When I graduated from high school, I was driving a truck, delivering fuel oil and kerosene to the back farms, with no way of going to college that I thought of. My mother-in-law lived with me and she was also on a fixed income. She passed last year, but she lived with me for 36 years. I know what it’s like for people to struggle on a fixed income. But there might be a lot of Chester Floyds out there and, if they don’t get a quality education, they can never do what they may be called to do. They can never get out of a situation to better themselves."

The superintendent noted that public schools are a safe haven for many children.

"We’ve got many teachers who can tell you horror stories," Floyd said. "In many cases, the facility the children go to is the safest place they have for a 24-hour period, where the meal served for breakfast and lunch is best they can get. If we don’t take of those children, society will take care of them eventually with more prisons and jails. But we have to do something now. The truth is, folks, that we have to be partners and stand shoulder to shoulder."

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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