In a tough financial year, the Aiken County Board of Education agreed Tuesday to a tentative operations budget with a modest tax increase of 5.8 mills that will actually be lower.


Here's how: The Aiken County School District has an operations budget of 135.8 mills that is used to pay for salaries, utilities, travel, basic supplies and other expenses. The current debt service millage of 31.5 mills is limited only to facility construction and general maintenance expenditures.


The School Board approved a plan on Tuesday to move 2.5 mills from the debt-service millage to the operations budget. Board members took this step to reduce a shortfall of $2.2 million from the 2013-14 budget. Other actions – closing schools for the winter break and flexibility of using science kit allocations for schools – were also approved for that reason.


The transfer of debt-service millage is pretty good news for owners of primary residences, who will save a few dollars through this mechanism, said district Comptroller Tray Traxler.


Thanks to a 2006 state law, primary homes are not subject to taxes for operations budgets. Homeowners do pay the taxes on debt service, so they will get a 2.5 mill decrease thanks to the swap, saving $10 per $100,000 value on their residences.


Businesses pay taxes on operations as well as debt service. The swap of 2.5 mills from one account to the other won't affect them; the 3.3 mill increase in operations will cost businesses $19.80 per $100,000 value. Again, the millage amounts could change in the next month.


The School Board could have raised taxes by a total of 8.7 mills. That's about three times higher than the S.C. General Assembly's threshold for the new fiscal year. However, state lawmakers in recent years have permitted a “look-back” of three years – allowing school districts to add available millage that wasn't used in one to three years back.


Board members used some of the “look-back” millage, but accepted a recommendation from district administrators to retain about 2.9 mills to use next year in the event of another budget shortfall.


The $2.2 million shortfall from a projected budget of $163.4 occurred for several reasons. The School District has, in recent years, relied on “carry-over” funds to alleviate past shortfalls and introduce new programs considered essential. Two years ago, Board members approved a major expansion and restructuring of an alternative facility – now called the Center for Innovative Learning at Pinecrest.


“These are state monies that we were able to flex, but they have gradually decreased,” Traxler said.


The Generally Assembly won't formally approve its own budget until June 25. It's possible that legislators could add more to state education funding, but it's not likely, Traxler and Board members said.