Sumter School District requests millage increase from County Council

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Sumter School District Superintendent Dr. Debbie Hamm requested from Sumter County Council on Tuesday evening a millage rate increase of 5.48 mills, equivalent to an increase of $1,057,251 for its upcoming fiscal year.

Hamm was joined by the district’s Finance Director Chris Griner as they used a PowerPoint presentation to update council members on various aspects of the district such as culture and environment, teacher retention, strategies, career readiness, improving customer service expectations, savings and proposed expenditures.

Hamm is asking for five new teachers ($400,000); a development coordinator/grant writer ($80,000); a technology project manager ($75,000) and a ($502,251) contribution to the district’s fund balance.

With a forecasted fund balance of $6,000,000, the district is forecasting revenues to match expenditures for Fiscal Year 2019 at $131,854,396.

Before the district presentation, Sumter County Administrator Gary Mixon spoke about a bond ordinance involving a $2.5 million general obligation bond the county issues each year.

Mixon highlighted the list of items to be covered by the $2.5 million bond: Patriot Hall renovations would cost $195,000 and fix the air-conditioning system, which is “limping along,” he said; $400,000 for Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center would cover roof work, air-conditioner repairs and plumbing issues as well; 15 vehicles for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, 10 pick-up trucks at $254,500; a custom brush truck for the Sumter Fire Department and rescue tools along with 50 sets of personal protective gear and a new motor-grader. There’s also $110,000 for digital storage space for sheriff’s office body and vehicle cameras, he said.

He also reminded council of several items from the general fund balance: renovations to the old fire department/new EMS station, demolition of the old jail and construction of a new parking lot.

Councilman Chris Sumpter asked about the motor grader, and Mixon said there’s a buy-back program that ensures the county can trade in the current grader and maintain a “guaranteed built-in value” that is the difference in the value of the two.

Council passed second reading of the bond ordinance.

After Hamm spoke, Griner touched on several areas. In regards to the 5.48 millage increase the district is seeking – which is the maximum proposed increase allowed by state law – Griner noted the “main impact of a millage rate increase is on commercial (and) industrial (properties),” with no effect on residential homeowners.

He also said the district feels it’s important to build their fund balance to meet the state level of having one month of expenditures, which is about $11 million.

“Keep in mind we’re at $6 million,” he said. “We continue to make strides.”

Council Chairman James T. McCain Jr. asked about the forecasted fund balance of $6 million at the end of Fiscal Year 2019, and Griner said the forecast is the same for FY 2018 and FY 2019.

McCain asked about whether the requested $502,251 contribution to fund balance – as part of the district’s $1,057,251 total request – would help maintain the projected $6 million fund balance. Griner said no, the $502,251 would increase the fund balance to $6.5 million.

Councilman Charles Edens asked about the proposed five new teaching positions for a cost of $400,000, and how that broke down. Griner said that number includes salary and benefits. Edens asked for a list of the Teachers Advisory Council and Hamm said she would provide it.

Edens also asked about whether a site was chosen for the elementary alternative school and Hamm said several are being considered. She said she wants to make a recommendation to the Sumter School District Board of Trustees on June 19.

McCain asked about Brewington Academy being closed and where those children would go and she again said she would make that proposal to her board on June 19.

Councilman Eugene Baten asked about savings and how $498,010 would be saved from consolidation, while the district is also asking for $400,000 to create five new teaching positions. Baten asked if any teaching positions would be affected by the consolidation or if janitorial and cafeteria workers would lose jobs.

Griner said through attrition and retirements, workers would simply transfer to other schools. Hamm said people thought money would be saved on teachers, but the same number of children still need to be taught.

“They’re just at a different location,” she said.

Baten asked how there could be savings if a person is moved “from A to B.”

Griner said the savings come from retirements or resignations. Baten said he was “really surprised” in looking at test scores and how he “was sort of demoralized” at the low test scores for the district compared to the rest of the state. He looked at rankings of school districts, he said.

“Out of the 82 school districts, Sumter County School District ranked number 60,” he said. “Very low. So the quality of education that we talk about that we have is really not there, according to the state and according to the test scores, so we really have a lot of work to do as far as improving our students’ test scores.”

Baten said he appreciated getting students ready for college, but in talking with folks at Central Carolina Technical College, some students that graduated from local high schools have to go through a remedial course before they can start, he said.

As for the millage increase, Baten said the district last year asked to approve a mill increase, which was voted down. And now the district is before council again asking for an increase, he said.

“What about fiscal autonomy? Have you thought about fiscal autonomy?” he asked, referring to districts that don’t need budgetary and millage approval from County Council.

“I have,” she said. “I’ve thought it about … because quite honestly the school board really knows more about the needs of the school district than other policy makers.”

Baten thanked Dr. Hamm, “because you said exactly what I was saying.”

The district has a budget of $131 million, he said, while Council deals with a budget of about $54 million.

“So we have to make a decision on your budget that’s twice as large as ours, and we really don’t have the expertise to deal with a budget of your size and the line items that you have,” he said. “But now that you have nine members on your council – on your school board -- that are non-partisan; we are a partisan board, four of us can vote down your nine members and not give you anything. Does that bother you?”

“Yes,” she said. “But I also understand that is the way it’s done in a lot of places.”

The county as a whole is affected by taxation, she said, and the whole picture needs to be considered.

“But if you had fiscal autonomy, you would have the right to ask for a millage increase that you’re entitled to by law,” he said. “You don’t have to come to us, right?”

Hamm said that would be true.

Baten then noted the county has a proposed balanced budget in place and doesn’t want to increase millage.

“Because we wanted to show the citizens of this county that we were very responsible of their budget – their money that they entrust us with,” he said. “So we didn’t want to raise millage,” even though there’s a shortfall regarding the Local Government Fund, which is not being funded by the state Legislature according to law.

“We could have raised millage to get that money (the Local Government Fund shortfall) but we refused to do it because we wanted a balanced budget,” he said. “But now we have to make a decision to raise millage for the school district, which we didn’t want to do for the citizens of this county.”

Baten said he hopes the district looks at fiscal autonomy because he wants a quality school district with the Board of Trustees taking the reins and not County Council.

Edens said he read a newspaper article recently that showed there were 60 more teachers three or four years ago than there are presently. Hamm said she doesn’t know the exact number but when the district’s budget was downsized to make up for a budget deficit, 90 positions assigned to schools were lost.

Class sizes have gone up, she said, and relative to competing districts, Sumter’s teacher to student ratio is larger. Edens said in looking at the district’s budget, there’s been a 23 percent increase over the last five years.

“So if it’s increased every year for the last five years, what’s happening to that money you’re paying all those teachers?,” he asked.

Hamm said state mandates account for “a big chunk,” with health insurance costs and retirement benefits which raise the cost per teacher.

Edens said in the same five-year period, the county has increased its budget six percent vs 23 percent for the district. McCain asked about how the district could become fully autonomous and would it require an act of legislation.

Hamm said she thinks the Legislative Delegation would have to make that change. School districts need to recognize who pays the mills as it is businesses in our communities, she said.

A balancing act is needed, she said, so that excessive millage doesn’t drive away the very businesses that are funding the schools. The business community wants to see improvements in our educational system, she said, and is willing to support “a modest increase in our millage.”

Edens agreed with her and said he’s spoken with folks who own rental homes and he thinks the costs will be passed on to them – and the renter -- which takes money out of the local economy.

Baten bemoaned Act 388, which took the school tax burden off private homeowners and put it on businesses.

“There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” he said. “And if we have to raise millage on businesses, they need to understand that. But I hate for us to raise that millage for the schools, when at the same time, we are cutting our budget for the county to absorb money that we didn’t get in our Local Government Fund.”

Meanwhile, there’s roads that need repairing, for example, but would require a millage increase to do so.

“So that’s heartburn for me,” he said.

Hamm said she wants the businesses funding the schools to realize a return on their investment.

Councilwoman Vivian Fleming-McGhaney said she’s glad to know the business community is willing to accept a millage increase. Council also makes decisions on economic development, she noted, which brings jobs to the local populace.

McCain thanked Hamm and Griner and said a recent survey showed close to 400 jobs that pay well but were left unfilled because the workforce is lacking the right skillsets.

“So that puts the onus back on the school district to try – not try; like Yoda, don’t try, do – to increase the skill level of our graduating students,” he said.

Council will continue to do its part in bringing jobs, he said, while the school district needs to train the students.

“That’s our goal,” she said.

County Council will likely vote at its June 12 meeting on a resolution regarding the district’s request.

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