Sumter County Council had multiple questions and comments after listening to a presentation from Sumter School District regarding a 5.48 mill increase, equal to about $1,057,121 million, during its budget workshop on Tuesday.
Though the …
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Though the district's budget is balanced at $131,854,396 million, it does not leave room for the entity to pursue its goals to add more positions, which makes up three of the school district's four recommended uses for the proposed increase.
Those positions include five teaching positions, estimated at $400,000 with the inclusion of benefits; a grant writer/development coordinator, $80,000; and a technology project manager, $75,000.
"We wanted to show you that we had balanced the budget without including the millage rate increase," said Chris Griner, chief financial officer for the district.
The remaining $502,121 of the $1,057,121 million millage increase would go toward building the district's fund balance to have on hand one month's operating expenses, $10.8 million, based on the proposed $131.8 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Sumter School District forecasts that its fund balance for fiscal year 2019 will be $6 million, or about $6.5 million if the millage request is approved.
If approved, in full or partially, the millage increase would only affect people who have commercial, industrial and rental properties and additional homes.
The district is entitled to the 5.48 mills requested, in accordance with state law Act 388; however, county council determines if that increase will take place. Act 388, passed in 2006, swapped the burden of paying operating taxes for school districts from homeowners to businesses and industries.
There is a cap on how much the school district can request based on a formula set by the state which includes population growth and inflation, according to Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm.
Councilman Gene Baten asked Hamm if she has considered seeking fiscal autonomy for the school board which would allow the entity to increase its mills, in accordance with Act 388 and the state formula, without the approval of county council.
"We really don't have the expertise to deal with a budget of your size and the line items that you have," Baten said after commenting that the county's budget is about half of the school district's.
He asked Hamm if it bothers her that the nine non-partisan members on the school board can be outvoted by seven partisan members of county council.
"I'm saying that because I want us to be able to have that school district, that quality school district, that you want," Baten said, "and I want your trustees to be in charge of it and not this council."
While Hamm said she thinks the school district board of trustees are more knowledgeable about issues affecting the schools, she understands that there is a bigger picture that includes the consideration of local businesses.
"My impression right now is that our business community desperately wants to see improvements in our educational system," she said, "and is willing to support a modest increase in our millage."
Baten also commented on academics and said test scores are some of the lowest in the state and some high school graduates are not as prepared as they should be for college.
"I was sort of demoralized that our test scores were so low compared to state standards," he said. He also said, after speaking with local college officials, some students are having to take remedial classes before they can begin training for their areas of study.
Related to Baten's comments, Chairman Jim McCain said he appreciates the district's new plans to put added emphasis on improving the skills and learning environments for its students.
At one time, there were nearly 400 jobs paying between $40,000 and $50,000 salaries that could not be filled because applicants did not have the skill, he said.
"We're going to continue to do our part on county council and bring jobs," he said. "The school district has got to train the kids."
Councilman Charles Edens said after looking on the district's website he found that the entity's budget had increased by 23 percent in the last five years.
During that time, there was also a loss of teachers so where is that money going, he asked.
Hamm said while the district has fewer teachers, about 60 or 40 fewer, a big chunk of the district's expenses go toward increasing state-mandated costs - retirement and insurance - for its remaining employees.
"So you don't necessarily get more teachers for your money," she said. "It ends up being much more expensive per employee."
Griner said benefits are equal to about 40 percent of an employee's salary.
County council will vote on the school district's millage increase request during its next regular meeting on June 12 when it will also consider third and final reading of the county's 2019 budget and a $2.5 million capital bond.
Since the district's request will be presented to council as a resolution on June 12, it requires only one vote and no public hearing.
In the county, ordinances require three approval votes and one public hearing before they are passed.
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