Tax law causing budget woes

Rock Hill school officials, constrained by a new state law and an old county tax cap, are preparing to adopt a 2007-2008 operating budget they fear could compromise class size in future years.

The district has struggled for several years to reduce class size because a low teacher-pupil ratio generally improves students' results. It also helps districts meet state and federal standardized test score requirements.

But this year, taxpayers will not pay school operating costs on their homes. Instead, everyone will pay school operating taxes in an additional state 1-cent sales tax. The state will divvy the penny tax revenue to districts based on the current fiscal budget, inflation and student population, weighted for factors such as poverty and special needs students. School operating taxes still will be levied on commercial property and cars.

The 2007-2008 budget to be presented to the public June 18 will provide the baseline for future budgets.

The proposed $120 million operating budget is about $11 million more than the 2006-2007 fiscal budget. It includes an average 5 percent pay increase for staff, 23 new elementary and middle school teachers and about 14 more high school teachers. India Hook Elementary, which opens in August, will require a staff of about 27. South Pointe High will operate with grades 9 through 12 for the first time.

The new operating budget also includes $156,000 in salaries for the principals of Dutchman Creek Middle and Mount Holly Elementary schools, both scheduled to open in 2008. More than $900,000 has been reserved to cover expenses to open the schools.

The district anticipates spending about $3,500 per pupil on the average. Enrollment is projected at about 17,100 students next year.

The proposed budget maintains the district's five-year mission of keeping class size low, said Rock Hill schools superintendent Lynn Moody, "but there is always a question in the future. That is the easiest way to cut costs when 85 percent of your budget is salaries."

County growth is a big factor, said Moody. The four school districts combined plan to open nine schools in the next several years. Opening a new school spikes operating expenses because of additional staffing, furnishings and other costs.

"Because we sit so close to the state line, we have more growth than the rest of the state," Moody said. "We think our community expects and demands high quality schools, and we want to continue to offer that without placing an undue burden on taxpayers."

Further complicating matters, county superintendents lost a recent bid before the legislative delegation to lift a tax cap unique to York County. State law would have allowed them more operating money than the county law. In Rock Hill's case, the state formula would have allowed up to almost $1 million more.

Legislators told the superintendents they would come to their aid next year if they receive insufficient tax dollars to operate.

"To say they want to see how it plays itself out in the first year, the year that establishes the baseline budget for future years, is in essence saying 'let's worry about the horse once it's escaped and run away from the barn,'" said Rock Hill school board member Jason Silverman.

Silverman and other area school officials are angry about the new state law, known as the Property Tax Relief law.

"Consequently, we cannot focus on moving forward, but on keeping our head above water and not moving backwards," he said. "If I were a businessman, I would work diligently to remove those people shortsighted enough to think the Property Tax Relief law will not damage public education and burden businessmen."

A public forum on the proposed Rock Hill schools operating budget for 2007-2008 will be held at 6 p.m. June 18 in the media center at Ebinport Elementary.

Ebinport will serve as the district office this summer while remodeling is under way at the school district office. Ebinport is located at the intersection of India Hook and Ebinport roads in Rock Hill.