County, school board begin funding dialogue

Published 3:10 am Thursday, May 24, 2007

By Staff
County proposes school system gets $12.2 million
News Editor
Beaufort County commissioners’ budget workshop Wednesday included ghosts of budgets past — at least a couple of reminders the funding dispute between the school board and the county isn’t over.
Robert Belcher, chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education, was almost done with his obligatory presentation of Beaufort County Schools’ budget when County Manager Paul Spruill asked the question he said “might get my hand slapped later.” Knowing the school board will receive $12.2 million in fixed funding from the county in fiscal year 2007-2008, Spruill asked about the variable still facing both boards.
At the root of Spruill’s question is $412,457 that Superior Court Judge William Griffin granted the schools in December. That sum comes out of the $765,783 in additional funding a jury awarded the schools in July 2006, leaving just over $353,000 in dispute. But when Griffin rendered his decision, the judge said he would “leave the door open” to reconsider the amount after the school system made all its budget amendments for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The school board’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes a line item allocating $200,000 for legal expenses, prompting questions from the commissioners. Moss explained that figure is simply a “rollover” and the line item would be reduced in the final budget. The extra money would likely go toward maintenance, Belcher said. But after Spruill mentioned the unsettled litigation, Moss responded, “We may need to leave that legal-expense line item alone.”
Spruill said he didn’t know that there could be further legal action on Griffin’s judgment, and he asked that the school board “go ahead and move the money (to maintenance) to make everybody feel good.”
Moss answered: “And we may have to move it right back.”
Spruill acknowledged Moss’ concern, saying the county would understand if that happened.
In February, commissioners and the school board entered an interlocal agreement that bars the two bodies from suing each other over school funding for the next four fiscal years. Under that agreement, the school board will receive a 5 percent increase each year for its operating budget, but no increases in its capital-outlay fund, which is used for building projects and major equipment purchases. Though the agreement provides the school board with fixed annual funding, the school board’s budget must be presented to commissioners before the fiscal year begins July 1.
For the coming fiscal year, Beaufort County Schools will receive $12,253,066, about $1.3 million more than the latest figure available for the current budget year that ends June 30.
Belcher said the school board had inspected the county’s older schools as part of its budgeting process.
Among the big-ticket capital projects is a $500,000 heating-and-air conditioning system for Eastern Elementary School in Washington.