Sumter County Council Chairman Baten says school district needs fiscal autonomy

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 7/9/19

Sumter County Council Councilman Eugene Baten attests "Team Sumter" died with council's 4-3 vote to deny Sumter School District a millage rate increase two weeks ago.

Baten, who spoke to The Sumter Item last week and on Monday about the …

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Sumter County Council Chairman Baten says school district needs fiscal autonomy

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Sumter County Council Councilman Eugene Baten attests "Team Sumter" died with council's 4-3 vote to deny Sumter School District a millage rate increase two weeks ago.

Baten, who spoke to The Sumter Item last week and on Monday about the predicament he now sees the school district in after three consecutive years of tax increases denied by council, said the only solution is for the Sumter County Legislative Delegation to grant the district its own fiscal control.

Team Sumter has been an expression elected officials and government and economic development leaders have used for almost a decade to describe a cohesive working relationship among Sumter City Council, county council, the school board and economic development officials to move Sumter forward in today's high-skills economy.

"Tuesday, June 25, 2019, is a day of infamy in Sumter, South Carolina," Baten said, referring to a statement he made immediately after council's vote that night. "It is a day of disgrace because it's the day 'Team Sumter' died."

County council members Artie Baker, Jimmy Byrd and Charles Edens, all Republicans, and Democrat Chris Sumpter voted against even a 1.5-mill increase - which translated to about $206,000 - to help with a state-mandated teacher pay raise.

Joining Baten, a Democrat, on the failing side of the vote included Chairman Jim McCain and Vivian Fleming-McGhaney, also both Democrats.

Baten was a vocal supporter for the district's original, 9.01-mill request that would have represented about $1.2 million in additional tax revenue going into district coffers.

Baten said the three Republicans on council have always voted, except for in 2016, against a millage increase since he came on council in 2005. District millage votes have typically been 4-3 in favor of an increase, he said, with all four Democrats supporting the request.

Votes purely along party lines changed when Sumpter joined council in November 2016. He voted three straight years with the Republicans against raising taxes for the school district.

With a new state law requiring all school districts to have one month's operating expenditures in their general fund balance, Baten said he thinks all districts should have fiscal autonomy. That would allow school boards to raise millage on their own by a majority vote, removing county councils from the decision.

The millage hike is subject to a cap, which is also under state law.

"If the school boards and districts are being told now by law to have one month's operating expenses," Baten said, "then they should have the fiscal autonomy to collect the money that the law says they're allowed."

Currently, 27 districts in the state have fiscal autonomy, 25 have no fiscal authority - including Sumter - and must go through their respective county councils, and the remaining 29 districts fall somewhere in between, according to the state School Boards Association.

Debbie Elmore, director of governmental relations and communications with the School Boards Association, said Monday she hasn't heard that rationale mentioned as reason to give districts fiscal autonomy, though her agency does support that because it's a voice for the boards at the state level.

To potentially grant Sumter School District fiscal autonomy, it would require majority support from the seven-member Sumter legislative delegation to enact the change. Baten said he has spoken so far with two delegation members on the matter, state Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, and state Rep. Will Wheeler, D-Bishopville. He said he plans to reach out to the others.

In March, Baten proposed county council send a letter to the delegation requesting fiscal autonomy for the district, but it was voted down 6-1 by council.

The district's finances have been under scrutiny since its fiscal 2016 audit report revealed $6.2 million in overspending, draining the district's general fund balance to $106,449.

In the last two-plus years, the district has rebuilt the general fund balance and is projected to have in excess of $10 million when the 2019 audit report is released in December.

In March, State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman elevated the district's financial declaration from fiscal caution to fiscal emergency after the school board diverted from its own financial recovery plan with a vote to reopen Mayewood Middle School. The school board voted in April 2018 to close Mayewood Middle and F.J. DeLaine Elementary School in Wedgefield due to what it said was low enrollment and in an effort to save money.