County property taxes increasing again to help pay DD2 teachers

Property tax bills for rental properties and businesses will increase for the second time this year in Dorchester County to again help fund the school district budget.

At its meeting Monday in Summerville, County Council members approved third and final reading of an ordinance amending the county’s 2019-2020 fiscal year budget — which was initially approved in June — to include additional tax revenue for Dorchester District Two. The vote was 6-0, with Councilman Jay Byars absent.

The school district will receive about $3.2 million in total tax revenue this fiscal year, between the two budget increases the council has approved in two months.

In June, the governing body passed a 7.8-millage increase to give the school district about $2.1 million in property tax funding. The latest tax increase is about $1.1 million.

Broken down, one mill in the county equals about $270,000, though that amount could change since the county’s undergoing a reassessment. The first increase equated to $93.60 more on a $200,000 rental property bill; the newly-approved increase will hike tax bills another roughly $48 on a $200,000 rental property, based on a 6-pecent assessment ratio, according to the county.

Both decisions to raise taxes stemmed from district leaders’ frequently-voiced concerns to council members that they expected a nearly $8 million deficit this school year, lacked certain vital resources and felt the need to incentivize teachers to keep them from seeking employment and higher pay in neighboring school districts.

“We are at a tipping point in Dorchester District Two,” said MaryRita Watson, a local teacher, during Monday’s public comment time. “It is imperative that we retain our quality teachers.”

Watson also urged school leaders, parents and others passionate about state education reform to press legislators to make change “so that our County Council and school board...won’t have to suffer through this budget drama every year.”

Nearly annually, during the budget process, the school district approaches the council about its financial woes; some years, though not every year, the county has provided additional funding through tax hikes. Because the school district lacks fiscal autonomy, it’s required to have the council approve its budget.

District officials said the most recent tax increase will be used to boost teacher salaries. Coupled with the funding earlier approved in the county budget—to help cover the 4-percent, state-mandated teacher pay raises—some DD2 teachers could see as much as a 7-percent increase in their paychecks since last year.

“The funding could provide another one percent so that the average teacher increase from last year, including STEP (State Teacher Education Program) is 7 percent,” said Allyson Duke, CFO for DD2.

But according to Councilman David Chinnis, throwing more money at the school district isn’t going to solve its ongoing budgetary issues in the long run.

“Money does not fix this; we can prove that,” Chinnis said. “We can show you the budgets in some of these schools (across the state) that have got a lot more money than District Two has, and their scores aren’t where ours are, so it’s not a money issue; it’s a priorities issue.”

School board members agreed that the district boasts top scores in the state but rests near the bottom of the list when it comes to state funding.

“We’re down there for funding, but we are way up there for our academics,” said Tanya Robinson, school board chair.

Chinnis explained how he believes the issue won’t be fully resolved until Act 388—legislation he referred to as a “fiasco”—is repealed. Act 388 prevents school districts in the state from collecting taxes on owner-occupied homes for the purpose of covering school operating expenses.

“You as a user of this product we call Dorchester District Two…are not being asked to pay to use this product,” Chinnis said of parents and former parents of local students.

Chinnis also responded to Watson’s comments about “budget drama” and how the school district, going forward, must conduct financial planning. He said the county even required the district agree to the stipulation in writing before the county offered more tax revenue.

“‘Budget drama’—I’m glad you used that term. We had budget drama twice this year,” Chinnis said. “Not only is it financial planning going forward, but it’s transparency going forward. There’s a lot of things that that little piece does. …It’s important to me; it’s important enough to this community.”

But it’s the local business community that most deserves the financial planning commitment, since businesses are most impacted by the tax hike, according to Chinnis.

“In the end, this is a difficult decision to make…because we are impacting small businesses pretty heavily,” he said.

Wilson said she’s also helped create a Facebook group called “DD2 for Ed Community Supporters” to inform community members about state-level education legislation. Wilson said the group aims to meet monthly, “give calls to action for people,” help build a plan of education reform to present to local legislative delegates, and build a better relationship and conversation on the matter between county and DD2 leaders.

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