Trustees question Mitford payments

WINNSBORO—As the Fairfield County Board of Trustees finalizes its upcoming budget, some members are questioning why Fairfield County money is still being spent in neighboring Chester County.

At issue are state-mandated payments to the Chester County School District covering costs of Fairfield County students, specifically from the Mitford community, who attend school in Chester County.

Fairfield trustee Annie McDaniel took issue with the payments during a discussion at the April board meeting, citing rising costs.

Payments – calculated at 103 percent of Chester’s prior year per-pupil cost of Mitford transfer students – are mandated in state law and have been upheld by the S.C. Supreme Court.

“I don’t think they intended for it to go on and on forever,” McDaniel said. “We need to look at that, we’re sending a lot of money over there.”

In 2018-2019, student transfers are expected to cost Fairfield County schools an additional $74,150, rising from about $552,000 this year to $626,000, according to budget figures.

McDaniel called for the district’s legal counsel to review the Chester County payments. She also suggested that Chester is more prosperous than Fairfield County.

“They’ve got some pretty good industry coming in on their side,” she said.

Since January 2017, the S.C. Department of Commerce published on its website two announcements about new or expanding industry in Chester County, accounting for 174 new jobs.

There have been no announcements for Fairfield County, according to the Department of Commerce website. Besides the money the Fairfield School District receives from the state and from County taxes, it also receives more than $18M in property taxes annually from V.C. Summer’s unit one.

Board member Henry Miller thinks there should be greater accountability of the money Fairfield sends to Chester.

“Where are the checks and balances? I don’t want anyone fudging the math, so to speak, making us pay more,” Miller said. “I’d just love to see all of them [Mitford students] come back home.”

When contacted by The Voice, the Chester County school district released a prepared statement attributable to Dr. Angela Bain, the district’s superintendent.

“We are not privy to any discussions that the Fairfield County School Board is having regarding this matter,” the statement said. “We are aware of the Supreme Court’s decision, and we are complying with that decision.”

A state law known as Act 294 that passed in 2010 requires the Fairfield County school district to foot the bill for Mitford community students attending Chester County schools, mainly in Great Falls.

The school district filed suit, challenging the law, but the effort failed when a sharply divided state Supreme Court upheld Act 294 in a 3-2 decision, according to judicial records.

The voting majority said in its opinion that Fairfield County Schools never showed that the General Assembly “failed to have a logical basis or sound reason” in enacting Act. 294.

Court documents state an informal agreement facilitating the transfer of Mitford students to Chester County existed since 1972.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the deal broke down, prompting special legislation to address the issue.

Following the 2010 legislation, the Fairfield County school district was invoiced more than $1.8 million for the past three years, court documents state, and has been paying the Chester County district ever since.

In a minority opinion, Justice Donald Beatty said Act 294 is unconstitutional because it conflicts with pre-existing general laws addressing student transfers. Justice Kaye Hearn concurred.

“In reaching this conclusion, the majority myopically focuses on the procedural posture of the instant case and, in turn, effectively discounts the fundamental question regarding the constitutionality of Act No. 294,” Beatty wrote.

Beatty further asserted Act 294 provides different processes for calculating the cost of student transfers.

“Fairfield County has the resources and facilities to provide free public education for all of its resident children,” Beatty said. “I discern no reason why FCSD should now be statutorily required to reimburse CCSD for continued voluntary transfers.”