Sumter School District will ask for tax increase to fund teacher salary increases

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 4/11/19

Sumter School District will ask Sumter County Council for a millage rate hike equivalent to $1.5 million to fund state-mandated teacher salary increases later this spring.

Andrea White, the district/trustees' attorney in its appeal hearing …

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Sumter School District will ask for tax increase to fund teacher salary increases

Posted

Sumter School District will ask Sumter County Council for a millage rate hike equivalent to $1.5 million to fund state-mandated teacher salary increases later this spring.

Andrea White, the district/trustees' attorney in its appeal hearing Tuesday of its state-declared fiscal emergency, told the state Board of Education that the request is part of the district's new financial recovery plan, and board Chairman the Rev. Ralph Canty confirmed the details to The Sumter Item on Wednesday.

Canty said the full nine-member school board and administration have mutually agreed on the need for the added revenue to pay for the 4% salary increases.

"We do have in place a strategy to reach out to county council for help," Canty said. "We will need to honor the increase in teacher pay, but the district doesn't have the funding to pay for that increase and also raise our fund balance to the required one-month level."

District Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Miller said the $1.5 million request translates to about nine mills, still subject to factoring inflation, and represents 5.48 mills turned down by county council in 2017 and '18 and a millage cap of about 3.5 mills this year.

The millage increase would have no impact on primary homeowners' property because that is exempt with state law, Miller said. If the request is approved, it would impact all vehicles in the county and commercial property, including homeowners' second and additional homes they rent out as their non-primary residence.

On the matter of getting county council's approval for the millage, Canty was asked if he felt the board's recent actions would hurt the district's chances.

Those actions include trying to reopen Mayewood Middle School after it was closed last year by the full board - albeit one consisting of five different trustees before a five-member changeover in the November election. Before the effort to reopen the school, the district was already on "fiscal caution" by the state Department of Education after overspending its budget by $6.2 million in fiscal year 2016.

After the Feb. 11 vote to reopen Mayewood, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman declared a fiscal emergency in the district because the board diverted from its own recovery plan. Then, the majority of the trustees voted to appeal that declaration to the state Board of Education, which denied that appeal on Tuesday in Columbia.

Spearman said Tuesday that the state does not want to take the district over but will be giving financial recommendations going forward. Those recommendations likely will not include reopening Mayewood.

Canty said he thinks the board is "challenged" in the millage request but said he thinks it's something that can be overcome.

"If we are sincere in our efforts to cooperate with the state department and with this new emergency plan," Canty said, "and we're willing to sit at the table with county council and other community leaders, anything may be possible. So, I am not ruling anything out at this point."

He added the district and county council are "partners" in cultivating and empowering Sumter County residents and that each entity must do its part to achieve that goal.

"We cannot be isolated or polarized or against each other," Canty said. "If we are successful in producing productive citizens for the workplace, then Sumter County is going to be successful. If we fail, Sumter County will suffer because of that. So, we can't draw a line in the sand. We've got to find ways to work together."

Sumter County Council Chairman Jim McCain told The Sumter Item on Wednesday he is in a wait-and-see mode at this time.

Like Canty, he said it's important to see how the full board will proceed now with the state department's recommendations on a new fiscal emergency plan. McCain has said previously he is against the vote to reopen Mayewood Middle, which was closed at the end of last school year by the school board because of low enrollment and in an effort to save money.

He said he was also disappointed that the school board appealed the state department's fiscal emergency declaration. Initial projections from two weeks ago estimated attorney fees for the district in the appeal to be about $20,000.

"I felt that was really a foregone conclusion that it was throwing good money after bad," McCain said. "And to me, it kind of seems, that's indicative of what this school board does - as far as how they spend our taxpayers' money."

He said he's supportive of the school system but doesn't know now how he will vote.

"I'm going to hold off and keep an open mind moving forward," McCain said.

Last year, McCain was one of two council members who voted in favor of the 5.48-mill increase request from the district. The full council voted 5-2 to deny the request.