Baten asks to raise taxes for Sumter School District

Proposal, request to ask delegation for district's fiscal autonomy voted down 6-1

BY RACHEL PITTMAN
rachel@theitem.com
Posted 3/14/19

A Sumter County councilman is pushing for change in the council's involvement with Sumter School District fiscal affairs, including a request to retroactively raise taxes to help the district build its fund balance.

Gene Baten, who represents …

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Baten asks to raise taxes for Sumter School District

Proposal, request to ask delegation for district's fiscal autonomy voted down 6-1

Posted

A Sumter County councilman is pushing for change in the council's involvement with Sumter School District fiscal affairs, including a request to retroactively raise taxes to help the district build its fund balance.

Gene Baten, who represents District 7, first proposed in a public meeting Tuesday that Sumter County Council grant the school district "look-back millage" for the past two years - meaning the council would retroactively hike taxes in Sumter County to pay the district the millage increase it requested but did not receive over the last two years.

"Do we want to deny them these funds that they are entitled to by law?" Baten said in an impassioned speech at the meeting. "We could potentially play a role in [the district] not meeting their fiscal goal."

The look-back millage proposal was passed over with little discussion from the other council members Tuesday. In both 2017 and 2018, Sumter County Council denied requests from Sumter School District to increase the millage rate, which would not have affected residential homeowners, but mainly businesses. Council said the total of the two requested increases is $2.7 million.

Baten also proposed that the council send a letter to the Sumter County Legislative Delegation requesting fiscal autonomy for Sumter School District.

Fiscal autonomy would allow the school board to raise the millage rate on its own moving forward as long as their increase falls within the amount allowed by Act 388, removing Sumter County Council from the decision. Baten brought the issue up last May when the county's annual budget and the millage rate request were on the table.

Currently, many districts in South Carolina are not fiscally independent, while select districts including Greenville County Schools and Charleston County Schools have full fiscal autonomy in their districts.

"We are the [15th] largest county population-wise in the state," Baten said. "Yet, we don't want to get along with the big boys, meaning that [Sumter School District] has fiscal autonomy and doesn't have to come before a smaller board."

Baten's proposed letter to Sumter County Legislative Delegation was voted down 6-1.

Baten's suggestions come after the declaration of a fiscal emergency in Sumter School District in February by State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman after the district overspent in 2016 and deviated this year from the financial recovery plan that was put in place to remedy the overspending.

In 2017, statewide legislation was passed that requires all public school districts to have, at minimum, one month's operating costs in their general fund. The district's $6.2 million in overspending in fiscal 2016 left just more than $106,000 in its general fund.

At the time it was last calculated, one month of operating costs for Sumter School District is roughly $12 million, a threshold that must be reached by June 30, 2020.

Building back its general fund has been a two-year process for the district to date, and the district submitted a financial recovery plan in May 2018 and voted in April 2018 to close Mayewood Middle School and F.J. DeLaine Elementary School to cut costs by selecting those low-enrollment schools for consolidation into other nearby schools, both of which are 3 miles or less away.

In February, the school board, with a majority of its members newly elected, voted 6-3 to re-open Mayewood, moving in a different direction from the submitted recovery plan and pushing Spearman to declare a fiscal emergency in the district.

Baten said his proposals could help Sumter School District obtain some of the funds it needs.

"We have not been able to provide services," he said, "that citizens who come before us need."