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Sumter County Council denies school district funding increase request

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 6/23/20

It was a different vote by Sumter County Council but the same outcome for Sumter School District in its request for a millage increase this year.

A motion Tuesday night by Councilwoman Vivian …

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Sumter County Council denies school district funding increase request

Posted

It was a different vote by Sumter County Council but the same outcome for Sumter School District in its request for a millage increase this year.

A motion Tuesday night by Councilwoman Vivian Fleming-McGhaney to fund a 3.3-mill increase that, along with estimated tax base growth in the county, would have given the district an estimated $1.5 million in additional revenue. It died in a 3-3 tie vote.

Council has now turned down a millage hike, the formula used to calculate taxes, for the school district for four consecutive years.

Voting was along party lines with Democrats McGhaney, Chairman Jim McCain and Chris Sumpter in support of the motion. Republicans Artie Baker, Jimmy Byrd and Charles Edens voted down the motion.

Councilman Gene Baten, a Democrat, recused himself and left council chambers during discussion on the millage resolution and didn’t vote. By parliamentary procedure, a motion must have a majority vote to pass. 

A longtime council member, Baten is a consistent supporter of funding the district and has been outspoken against the Republicans on council and also Sumpter, a fellow Democrat, for voting down the district in recent years. 

Sumpter switched his vote and supported a millage increase for the first time since be was elected to council in 2016. Sumpter lost his bid for a second term representing the county's western, rural District 1 during Tuesday's primary runoff.

Baten came back following the vote and participated in later portions of council’s meeting.

Efforts to reach Baten for comment Tuesday evening were unsuccessful.

Tuesday’s meeting was proceeded by a late-afternoon budget workshop that also addressed the district’s request. Baten recused himself from the workshop, as well. 

Earlier this month when district administration made its fiscal 2021 budget presentation to council at a June 9 budget workshop, Baten also recused himself from that discussion and left chambers.  

BACKGROUND

In split votes, county council has turned down the district's request for a millage increase since 2017. In that time frame, the district has had three superintendents. Penelope Martin-Knox is completing her first year now. Before her arrival, Debbie Hamm served as interim superintendent for two years. Before Hamm, Frank Baker was the district's superintendent. He retired in July 2017 in the wake of a financial crisis, when $6 million in overspending was revealed in the district's official audit. Baker was elected to an at-large school board seat in November 2018.

In 2016, council gave the school district a 9-mill increase.

Of the 79 school districts in the state, Sumter is one of 24 that operates without fiscal autonomy for operational expenditures, meaning the school board must get budgetary increases approved by county council.