Proposal aimed to ease revenue shortfalls at area schools

A proposal in the state Senate offered a glimmer of hope to fast-growing school districts like Fort Mill and Rock Hill, which stand to lose millions due to changes in the way money is doled out for school operations.

Homeowner property taxes used to make up part of the revenue for school operating costs in South Carolina, but the state's 2006 property tax reform law changed that. The law, Act 388, replaced residential property taxes for school operations with a statewide 1-cent sales tax last year.

Districts with growing populations cried foul. All four York County districts expect to get at least $1 million less this year than they would have before the change.

That's because under the change, funding is now based on state population growth, not local growth. Stagnant or shrinking districts thus gain money, while growing districts lose money.

"Your districts that have no student growth are going to benefit a lot more than ones that are fast-growing districts," said Walter Brown, a Rock Hill school board member who organizes grassroots advocacy.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, has asked the state legislature to consider changing the law so fast-growing school districts receive enough funding to keep up with the increasing number of students they serve.

Hayes said that he doesn't think his bill will be approved this legislative session, but that he will continue to introduce legislation until something is approved.

"The further along we get, the more people will see that something has to be done," he said.

Rock Hill and Fort Mill, the county's fastest-growing districts, expect to be hit the hardest by Act 388.

In Rock Hill, officials expect to receive about $1.9 million less this year than they would have before the change. In Fort Mill, that number is $1.7 million. Both districts say they will see revenue fall an estimated $6 million within the next three years.

Other fast-growing districts across the state are compiling data on their projected shortfalls to send a message to legislators that they don't like the way things are going. Officials in York expect about a $1 million shortfall and officials in Clover are planning for about a $1.2 million hit.

No time to wait

Many lawmakers have said they want to wait and see if Act 388 actually creates a problem before trying to make changes. But Hayes said waiting won't fix anything.

Rep. Ted Pitts, R-Lexington, introduced the same proposal as Hayes' in the House last week, and local Republican representatives Carl Gullick and Mick Mulvaney already have signed on.

The proposed bill would be a welcome change to local school officials.

Bill Mabry, associate superintendent of administrative services in Rock Hill, said the $1.9 million the district won't get this year is roughly equivalent to 34 teaching positions. In a district that is growing by about 300 to 400 students a year, that is a significant amount, he said.

The Rock Hill district is in the early stages of planning its budget, so it's too soon to tell what areas might be affected by the loss of revenue.

"We'll do everything we can to maintain the direction that we've had in the past, and the quality level we've had in the past," Mabry said. "We'll do everything we can to improve, but it's difficult under these circumstances."

Brown, the school board member, said he thinks it will take a large push from the general public before lawmakers start making changes to Act. 388.

"If we don't keep beating on their door, we're not going to get anything done," he said. "We're going to have to really become more and more politically active."

Brown said people should call, e-mail or write their state representatives to express opinions about issues that affect education.

"I think there's a hesitancy to do that, simply because of the fact that they don't feel like it does any good," Brown said. "But if enough people do it, it does have an impact."