Dorchester Council considers amending passed budget to give DD2 more funds

Dorchester County is considering amending its budget, passed last month, to allow Dorchester District Two to receive additional property tax revenue to pay for teacher salaries.

The school district is seeking another 4.2 mills, or roughly $1.1 million, Superintendent Joe Pye told the governing body during a special-called meeting Monday in St. George. The salary boost would provide some teachers—though not first-year teachers—with as much as a 7-percent raise, according to district officials.

Currently, one mill in the county equates to roughly $270,000 in property tax, though that amount could change since the county’s undergoing a reassessment.

While the council agreed in June, with the passing of the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget, to raise taxes on businesses and rental properties to help fund state mandates and other resources for the school district, the district continues to struggle with employee retention—and teachers agree.

More than 1,000 local educators signed a petition that the Summerville Education Association presented the council at its July 15 meeting. The petition requested a re-negotiation of the school district budget so teachers could receive better pay and do their jobs more effectively.

Over the summer months, Pye said the district has lost 22 teachers to Charleston County schools and 12 to Berkeley County schools. However, Dorchester Two has also gained 22 teachers apiece from both neighboring counties and even five from Orangeburg County. Pye said the district currently only has about six to seven teacher openings—a number he called “phenomenal” but also one he said fluctuates daily.

In June, council members passed a 7.8-millage increase to give the school district about $2.1 million in property tax funding. Council’s decision was in response to district officials’ incessant cries over the near-$8 million deficit they anticipated for fiscal year 2019-2020.

Broken down, the tax increase equates to $93.60 more on a $200,000 rental property bill, county officials said. However, homeowners will not have to pay the additional tax, since Act 388 prevents the state from collecting taxes on owner-occupied homes for school operating expenses.

While initially the school district said it needed about 30 mills to cover its entire shortfall, the county said it could only legally grant the district up to 23 mills, or $5.9 million. Councilman Bill Hearn said he hopes the district never again requests above what the council can legally fund.

Along with councilmen Jay Byars and David Chinnis, Hearn also expressed a strong desire for the school district to work with the county on a five-year and 10-year financial plan so both boards remain on the same page.

“We’ve become part of your budget so to speak,” Hearn said. “We have a stake in it; we see where the priorities are. …I think that helps with that buy-in from council going forward and makes the (budget) process easier.”

But Chinnis said he wants more than verbal head-nodding from the school district.

“I’d like to see that commitment in writing,” he said. “I just want to make certain we’re not doing this every year and running through this circus every year, and that we can come to a solution.”

District officials have sought additional funding multiple times from the county over the last several years, and more often than not, the county has agreed to some sort of financial compromise. The district is required to present its budget annually to the council for approval, since the district lacks fiscal autonomy.

According to Pye, in September the school board will vote on his goals for the district, and natural planning with the county will be his top goal.

“We’ll do the same thing with facilities,” he said. “Everything we’re doing, we plan out so we can show you the hole that’s happening as we try to climb out.”

Council members also urged the school district to continue pushing state lawmakers to better fund education.

“This is a stretch for this county to add this (amount) of millage,” Byars said. “Please keep pressure on the General Assembly of South Carolina to do their job. The state…has shorted this county far too long, and we are left picking up the slack.”

Whether the district will receive more funds—and if so, how much—remains to be determined. On Monday, the council only passed first reading, by title only, of an amendment to the FY2019-2020 budget ordinance.

Second reading is scheduled for the council’s Aug. 12 meeting, and a public hearing and final reading are set for the Aug. 19 meeting.

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