Money for Catawba school bill dropped from state budget

Chief Bill Harris
Chief Bill Harris aburriss@heraldonline.com

The Legislature made progress toward getting a state budget together over the weekend, when a conference committee between the House and Senate worked out the details of the state’s finances for the fiscal year starting July 1.

One item that didn’t survive the process was a $500,000 Senate proviso that would have been helpful to both the Rock Hill school district and the Catawba Indian Nation.

The proviso, proposed by Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, would have been a step toward resolving a long-standing dispute between the tribe and the school district over a 20-year-old tuition bill owed as part of the Catawbas’ 1993 land claim settlement with the state and federal governments.

But the conference committee deadlocked on the Catawba proviso, Hayes said, with the three Senate members – Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, and Nikki Setzler, D-Lexingon – in favor, while the House members – Brian White, R-Anderson, Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, and Mike Pitts, R-Laurens – opposed it.

“You needed to have two on each side,” Hayes said. “That’s pretty much a done issue, at least for this year.”

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who had opposed the proviso, asked his House colleagues to block the measure from advancing. His district includes much of the school district, but not the Catawba reservation east of the city.

“They owe the money,” he said of the state’s only federally-recognized Native American tribe. “It’s not up to the state to pay that debt. It’s up to the Catawba.”

In 1993, the tribe agreed to pay out-of-district tuition fees for Catawba schoolchildren when tribal property was taken off the school tax rolls. But the tribe has been unable to secure federal money to pay the tuition bill.

Since Act 388 removed residential property from school tax rolls in 2006 in South Carolina, the Catawba Nation no longer owes the school district tuition, but unpaid tuition for the 12 years prior means the nation still owes the district an estimated $2.7 million to $4 million.

Both the school district and the Catawba asked for the half-million dollars to help chip away at the bill, and several Rock Hill school board members contacted legislators hoping to get the measure passed as part of this year’s budget.

“We have a legal claim against the tribe, and we were trying to help them find a way to pay it,” said school board chairman Jim Vining. “But we didn’t count on having this money this year, so there’s no need to adjust for it.”

The tribe didn’t lobby for the money directly, Chief Bill Harris said, and were hoping the intervention of the school board would be enough to get the measure through, since “the school district has more political pull.” The Catawba might get more involved if the issue is revived next year.

“Maybe it does need somebody from the nation to sit down and discuss it with them, and I’m more than willing to be that voice,” Harris said. “I would say ‘thank you’ to Sen. Hayes, because he realizes this would benefit the school district, benefit York County and benefit the tribe.

“This was very short-sighted on the part of those who opposed this.”

Hayes said he might reintroduce the proviso for the state’s 2017 budget. The measure was a late introduction to the budget process this year, and Hayes feels a fuller discussion next year might help its prospects of passing.

“This is an unusual situation,” he said. “Rep. Simrill has a point that this is something the Catawba agreed to... but it will be very difficult for them if they have to pay it, and it will be very difficult for the school district to get their money back.”

Vining said his conversations with legislators about the issue hasn’t left him with much hope the General Assembly will ever consent to pay part of the tribe’s tuition bill.

“Sen. Hayes has been very supportive, but I don’t think some of the others have put in the same effort on this,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you what it would take to change that, because so far we have not been successful.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062