Last week, two people addressed the Aiken County Board of Education during a public input session on the 2013-14 budget.
During a more formal public hearing on the budget on Tuesday, three people chose to participate.
The School Board has tentatively agreed a 3.3-mill tax hike – based on a 5.8-mill increase in its operating budget and a 2.5-mill decrease in the debt service budget.
The increase is intended to offset a $2.2 million shortfall – created in large part by state-mandated expenditures. During the hearing, businesswoman Jane Page Thompson said the Board “could begin by addressing these shortages with a simple policy that you have the ability to implement – spending in Aiken first.”
Local providers to the School District should be given the opportunity to bid first, Thompson said. That could keep tax revenue within South Carolina rather than “letting it trickle” away in Augusta, she said.
Donna Wesby, a former School Board member, took another approach, urging the Board to use some of its fund balance or contingency account for significant instruction needs.
As Wesby told the Board last week, the fund balance has grown from about $11 million five years ago to $24 million currently
“You have the option of utilizing the fund balance to help meet the needs of school,” Wesby said. “I can’t stand to see another child go by the wayside.”
Dr. Marcia Harris, a longtime educator, asked the Board to devote more attention to the District’s instructional programs – increasing schools’ progress on the state’s standardized testing. Up to 30 percent of students did not meet standards on those tests.
“Now, we’re coming to the new Common Core curriculum,” Harris said. “Would you please consider looking at those instructional programs … to see what is working and what is not.”
In other business
• School Board attorney Bill Burkhalter provided answers to Board members’ questions from a previous meeting on the City of North Augusta’s Tax Incremental Financing mechanism.
The City is asking the School Board to have a role in a major economic development effort by agreeing to defer taxes on a small portion of the total project and ultimately get much higher tax revenue as the area develops.
Opponents to the City’s Project Jackson contend the City could proceed with its TIF plans without approval of the School Board and County Council. But the City must have the participation of both, Burkhalter said and if not, could only resort to a tax increase proposal to try to move forward.
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.