Tax Plan Rankles School Board

The concept of a level playing field in funding education in South Carolina may be an idealistic one, but it didn’t go over well with the Fairfield County School Board during their June 5 meeting.

Scott Price, of the State School Boards Association, and William F. Halligan, of the Columbia law firm Childs and Halligan, presented to the Board an overview of the S.C. Education Finance Restructuring Act, an act that Halligan’s partner, Ken Childs, said was lingering in a skeletal form in a State House committee.

The plan has no chance of passing this year, Childs said, adding, “If and when it does, the Fairfield County School District will be swimming in money. Literally swimming in it.”

But that is not how Board members saw it June 5, as they assailed Halligan and Price with questions and concerns about the plans call to phase out local funding of education and distribute tax dollars out of a central state pool.

“One of our concerns is that this legislation was purposely put together to redistribute V.C. Summer tax dollars that will come into Fairfield County,” Board Chairwoman Andrea Harrison said at the outset of the Price-Halligan presentation. “It may be good for the state overall, but it would, in so many words, hurt Fairfield County if our tax dollars from V.C. Summer were going to plug in the gaps in other portions of the state.”

“I hope this presentation will assure you that this is not the case,” Halligan said.

The proposal would equalize state funding, Halligan said, on a per-pupil basis, regardless of where the pupil lives. Fifty-five school districts in the state (60 percent) would get an increase in funding; funding for the remaining districts would stay the same, Halligan said. It would also provide a stable source of funding over time, he said, one that would not fluctuate with the economy. The pool would be distributed based on a formula of weighted pupils per district multiplied by $5,295.

The state pool would be fed by a taxable base of 100 mills, Halligan said, which would deliver significant property tax relief. The plan would also vanquish the myriad of local legislation laws that govern school districts and their power to tax, giving local school boards the power to assess an 8 percent tax on taxable property. Boards would also have the power to place a referendum before voters, asking for the authority to levy an even higher tax. Should a referendum pass, homesteads would come back into the tax base, Halligan said. Currently, no owner-occupied home pays taxes into education funding in South Carolina.

The Fairfield County School District, which operates on local funds assessed at 203.1 mills (well above the state average) and receives $7,802 per weighted pupil under the current system, would phase out more than $10.6 million over the next 25 years ($424,858 per year). However, with the new 8 percent tax authority, the Board could bring in an additional $7.7 million each year.

“How many times have we seen the state do something, grant you harmless money, then in a few years they don’t have enough money and they cut it,” Halligan said. “No plan. Inequitable every time. It hits different districts different ways. This way we have a planned thing that everybody could count on, plan for it, take it into account and have local authority to deal with it.”

The plan will be introduced next fall, Halligan said. In the meantime, it is still open to input and improvements.

But some members of the Board, as well as of the audience, smelled a conspiracy to rob Fairfield County of V.C. Summer tax dollars. Currently, the District takes in nearly $13 million in local revenues from the Jenkinsville nuclear facility. That figure is expected to rise dramatically, as two new reactors at the plant come online over the next five years.

Board member Marchella Pauling specifically asked why no representative of the Fairfield County School District was included in the group putting together the plan. Halligan said the plan has been under construction for several years, and at the time the Fairfield County School District did not have a finance director. However, Halligan said, districts with similar demographics were included, as well as financial information directly from the Fairfield County School District. Price noted that there are 85 school districts in the state, and to have a representative from each one involved in the process was unrealistic.

“It appears to me like the state is shucking their responsibility, trying to get on the piggy back of folks like us who . . .  we have the problems that a nuclear power plant can multiply, and we’re doing that times three now,” David Ferguson, Chairman of the Fairfield County Council, said from the audience, “and it seems kind of suspicious that the folks in Columbia are jumping to run at Fairfield County – they didn’t jump to run at BMW when BMW was opening, they didn’t jump at Boeing, but all of a sudden, the guys in Columbia are jumping at Fairfield County because we’ve got these new reactors coming.”

The timing of the plan in relation to the nuclear plant was coincidental, Price said. When BMW came on line, he said, the state didn’t have the funding problems that it has now. And, Halligan reiterated, the Board would still have the power to tax the nuclear plant at up to 8 percent of its assessed value.