How To Protect Local Control Of Budgets
by Alex Saitta
July 22, 2006
Like the rest of the residents in Pickens County, I was floored when I read the school board voted to raise property taxes on June 29.
You see, on May 22 the board had given final approval to the budget, and it contained no tax increase. In June the tax-swap law was passed and it contains limits on how much school boards can raise property taxes in the future. In response the board called a special meeting on June 29, re-opened the budget, and got in one more tax increase before the new law takes effect next year. (I thought the budget was put to bed in May, so I went on vacation the latter half of June and could not attend the special-called meeting.)
I understand my fellow board members do not like the taxation limits imposed by the tax-swap law passed in Columbia, however, they shouldn't have taken it out on county residents by raising property taxes another $1.5 million, before the law takes effect.
This also upset the local state delegation and similar actions by school boards around the state have angered the legislature. Now it is more likely the legislature will take further steps to reign in local school boards and their taxing ways. The school boards have become their own worst enemy, when it comes to this issue of local control vs. state control.
I don't believe the legislature wants to further control local school districts. The times I've seen it expand its control, it has been done with reluctance and much debate. For example, this session the legislature voted to force school boards to start after August 21. For years, parents and businesses complained about the early start dates and local school boards ignored their complaints. Why? School districts wanted the early start date. Then parents and businesses started to complain to the legislature. That went on for about 2 or 3 years, as the legislature was reluctant to step in. Still school boards did little to nothing to later their start dates. Finally, the legislature said, the school boards don't understand they work for the people (not the school districts) and the legislature passed a law that makes sure all districts start school no earlier than August 21.
As a conservative and a school board member, I oppose more state control and restrictions on local school boards. However, school boards have brought the property tax swap law upon themselves, just like they brought the statewide start date upon themselves.
School board members are elected to balance the needs of the school district with the means of the taxpayer. They meet monthly with the Superintendent to hear the needs of the school district, and board members are elected by the people every 4 years to make sure they have an ear to the taxpayers' wallets.
In reality, school boards throughout the state have favored the wishes of the school districts at the expense of the taxpayers. The school district leadership throughout the state is stacked with educators who don't have financial degrees or experience managing budgets in the hard-nosed private sector. As a result, overspending, waste and rising tax rates have became the norm. Taxpayers complained, but despite the complaints, school boards continued to favor school districts and have not moved to reign in the tax and spend ways of school boards. Taxpayers then tried a different approach, and took their case to the legislature. At first, the legislature was reluctant to do anything. However, school boards continue to operate in a business as usual manner, so in time the legislature was compelled to act, and it put taxation limits on school boards.
It is like when the clerk at Walmart who doesn't give the customer a fair shake. The customer then goes to the manager, and the manager comes back to the clerk, and says, you need to be fair with the customer, do this or that. That's what happened here. Going forward, if school boards do not balance the needs of the district with the means of the taxpayer, taxpayers will be back in Columbia demanding more restrictions on school boards, and the state restrictions will be increased.
Like I mentioned above, as a conservative, I'm not happy about this prospect. However, this will happen if school boards and school districts do not start doing a better job of managing their existing budgets.
Let's look at what is going on in Pickens County. In my opinion, the Pickens County school board is already getting enough money to address the problems it faces. For example, property tax revenue grew more than 13% for the July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006 fiscal year. Student enrollment grew only 0.5%. I think the school district and school board needs to better manage its $130 million budget and stop raising taxes. Unfortunately, mine is a minority opinion on the school board. The majority opinion is, there isn't enough money, the district/ board needs to find ways to get more money, beit through raising taxes like the board just did $1.5 million, overcharging the people in the reassessment like it just did $2.1 million, and conservatively estimating other revenue accounts like it did last year by a few hundred thousand, so the effective property tax rate ends up being higher than it would have been.
Likely one or two school board members will not run for re-election. My hope is people with financial experience will run for those open seats. Business people will work to improve the financial management of the existing school board budget and they are likely to oppose raising tax rates year after year. And responsible management of our local school budgets will keep Columbia from further limiting the fiscal independence of school boards around the state.