Darlington school leaders face ‘quite a dilemma’ with budget

Darlington County School Board members found themselves frustrated at realities facing their 2017-18 budget.

DARLINGTON, SC (WBTW) – Darlington County School Board members felt frustrated after Monday’s work session.

Members felt optimistic heading into Monday’s meeting, hoping to find ways to raise pay for teachers and staff and continue improving education in the district. They didn’t leave that way, though.

Darlington School Board members were frustrated after Monday’s work session.

“We are without a doubt handcuffed,” admitted Darlington County School Board Chairman Morphis. “We can’t do the things we used to do to get the money.”

In the years since a state law called Act 388 was passed, Darlington and many districts like it are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet while paying state-required expenses, many of which get more and more expensive each year.

“We were one of the few districts in the state that had fiscal autonomy,” Chairman Morphis explained. “We could make the decisions.”

Morphis said the 2006 law changed that, putting requirements like retirement, insurance, and even energy bills into district budgets.

The expenses required by the state for Darlington County Schools’ coming year total just over $2.2 million, the expected revenue for the year, just $1.8 million. This leaves the district in the red before they even get started.

“We can’t accommodate our needs,” Morphis said. “We really can’t do anything but go back three years, and that won’t produce near enough money for our needs, so we’re in quite a dilemma.”

“We’re in a dilemma,” said board chairman Jamie Morphis after Monday’s work session. State-required expenses will the district in the red before they’ve even started.

Act 388 allows schools to raise millage each year to help afford these and other expenses.

“We thought we were being good stewards of the public’s money by not raising taxes over the last eight years plus,” offered Morphis. “Come to find out, we probably should have.”

“We want to pay our teachers,” lamented Chairman Morphis during Monday’s meeting. Options vary from school consolidation to raising millage to help cover costs in the future.

One option is raising the allowed five mills (the sum total of three years’ millage hikes) all at once, but that would only yield a few hundred thousand dollars, hardly enough to do all the district wants to get done moving forward.

“We wanted to pay our teachers,” Morphis lamented. “To fund extracurricular activities where we have not done anything in 15-plus years.”

Many on the board say a change is needed at the state level to alleviate some of the burdens on districts like Darlington County.