AIKEN - South Carolina's structure for funding public schools is being challenged in a court lawsuit, which resumed last week, and lawmakers are scrambling to find a way to fix the problem as the legislative session kicks off this week.
The lawsuit in Manning challenges the ability of rich counties to raise property taxes to supplement the state money they receive for their public schools, an option poorer counties with smaller tax bases don't have.
In the face of this challenge, some legislators are proposing that local property taxes for schools be eliminated, forcing school districts to rely on the state. Educators, however, sharply object to this plan, noting that it would eliminate the traditional autonomy school districts enjoy in determining the path of their public schools.
As it stands, only 23 of the state's 85 school districts, including the Aiken and Edgefield county school boards, have independent authority to set tax rates for property owners. Among the rest, 26 have no authority to raise revenue from property taxes, and 36 have limits on the amount they can raise millage.
The discrepancy has put a spotlight on the 10-year-old lawsuit in Manning, which has 40 rural school districts challenging the educational funding formula, which they say puts them at a disadvantage.
The state has pumped millions of dollars into schools to pay for educational programs and projects designed to improve pupils' performance. But critics say the slashing of the state's budget has limited their ability to achieve higher standards.
Because poor districts, including McCormick County, have a small property tax base, they are more dependent on state money.
"You can look across the state, and it is very apparent that the state has not addressed education in a fair manner," said Sandra Calliham, McCormick County superintendent. "We spent years building this structure, and it's being wiped out."
Something needs to change, said House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, R-Richland.
Legislators are using the Manning suit as the reason to strip county school boards of their property tax authority, which would make the state the only funding source. During an election year, eliminating a tax is a popular idea among lawmakers.
Mr. Quinn and state Rep. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, have proposed shifting local taxpayers' responsibility for education completely over to the state by increasing the statewide sales tax from 5 percent to 7 percent, excluding food and medicine.
"I believe our system lacks accountability, and there is no standard for funding," Mr. Quinn said. "That's the plan's greatest strength."
Other legislators, including House Ways and Means Chairman Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston and Dorchester, have introduced similar proposals with slight variations.
In the past three years, the General Assembly has failed to give districts the money they said was necessary. Budget cuts have reduced the amount, and this year districts received $1,744 per pupil, well short of the $2,201 per pupil that educators said was necessary.
"Schools had to cut people, use their reserve fund, charge fees or raise local taxes in order to make up the difference," said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
New funding formulas could hurt districts such as Aiken County, which relies heavily on local property taxes. Property owners have been asked for more money for five years in a row.
"It would really hurt if Aiken County didn't have the ability to go to taxpayers, and I think it is wrong to penalize Aiken in order to fund other districts," said Roland Smith, R-Langley, the chairman of the K-12 subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. "I think the Legislature needs to find another way to provide funding."
Mike Simons, the president of the Aiken County Taxpayers Association, has said the school board is spending too much money and he wants to rescind the authority of the board to raise taxes at will.
Mr. Quinn agreed: "Just because it is legal doesn't make it right."
Answers could come from the court ruling in Manning or from lawmakers as the legislative session kicks off Tuesday.
Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater, said state legislators will have a difficult time coming up with a formula for success.
"Legislators don't want to increase taxes, and they tell that to the public and then push the problem down to the local level," Mr. Moore said. "Everyone is trying to please everyone, but something needs to change."
And it needs to change soon, Dr. Calliham said. She said the lack of funding in her district is obvious.
"We have no assistant principals, and two or three of our schools don't have secretaries. But we are held accountable for the same standards as the larger districts," she said. "We're sorry it has come to this, but we need to do what we have to for our children."
"We have no assistant principals, and two or three of our schools don't have secretaries. But we are held accountable for the same standards as the larger districts." - Sandra Calliham, McCormick County superintendent
Reach Peter G. Gilchrist at (803) 648-1395.
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