Republican Sen. Ray Cleary is to be commended for standing with Georgetown County taxpayers and Gov. Mark Sanford in voting to sustain the governor's veto of legislation that would have allowed the Georgetown County school board to use school construction bond money to fund operational deficit spending.
The legislation, sponsored by liberal Democrat Reps. Vida Miller and Carl Anderson, was in conflict with the constitutional prohibition on operational deficit spending that applies to all governmental units in South Carolina, and as Sanford stated in his veto message, "Bonded indebtedness should not be used by school districts to fund operating expenditures because an absolute rule of finance is that you do not fund short-term operations with long-term debt."
Cleary understands the last thing taxpayers want in Georgetown County is Washington, D.C.-style deficit spending that just keeps digging a deeper hole for taxpayers to climb out of.
But the demise of this particular bill isn't enough, because the public discussion it generated revealed deeper systemic problems that can only be solved by greater transparency on the part of school board members. For example, according to the latest state Budget and Control Board data, just 45 cents of every dollar of the $126.4 million the district spent in fiscal year 2008 was actually spent in the classroom for instruction.
While difficult economic times have affected revenue at all levels of government, according to the state Department of Education, the school board has managed to maintain a very generous level of per pupil spending, about $13,000 per year, because the district is losing students - almost 1,000 students since 1995.
Just how does the board spend tax dollars, what information does it use to make policy decisions, and when the board decides an issue, how did board members vote? We really don't know.
The school board has made it very difficult for taxpayers and parents to readily know the most basic information about the finances of the district, board meeting agenda items, and the voting record of board members. And in this day of Web-based information, there is no legitimate reason for this to happen.
Last month the Georgetown County Republican Party called on the school board to post the following information on its website to improve board transparency:
A complete school district budget, showing all revenues and expenditures, along with any amendments. The board currently posts only the budget for the General Fund, which represents just 60 percent of the complete district budget.
The complete annual district financial statements and audits.
An online check register so taxpayers can review in detail monthly district expenditures. A growing number of cities, towns, counties, and school districts are posting online check registers, including the cities of Georgetown and Myrtle Beach, the town of Surfside Beach and Horry County.
All board decision documents for meeting agenda items. The public should be given the same opportunity as board members to review these materials prior to a meeting.
The minutes of all board meetings so the public can know the details of board deliberations and how board members voted.
All of these items can be implemented for little cost, if any, yet the board has failed to act.
The county GOP believes there must be more school board transparency, to better inform the public about the performance of the board and increase accountability to the voters.
It's ironic that the school board, which is tasked with educating our children so they will be productive members of society, has so far been unwilling to educate taxpayers and parents about the board's own performance.
The writer is chairman of the Georgetown County Republican Party.