As $6.5 million deficit looms, school district prioritizes what not to cut

The Horry County Schools finance committee met Thursday to prioritize which budget items will be included in the 2017-18 budget presented to the full school board in May.

The district previously projected a $7.7 million deficit due to spending increases that haven’t been matched by an increase in revenue, said district Chief Financial Officer John Gardner.

Almost $4.9 million of those additional increases are optional spending items. The finance committee on Thursday ranked the optional items by order of importance and recommended cuts to some of the items that will go before the board.

Including the committee’s proposed cuts, the district will still have to make up a $6.5 million deficit before the budget is balanced.

Some of the optional expenses the committee prioritized include pay increases for employees, student furniture, building services staff and supplies and an additional seven days of instructional support for staff development.

At the bottom of the list was an additional $23,000 for junior varsity lacrosse.

“The big thing is we have additional expenses,” Gardner said. “You have health insurance, you have the cost of opening the new schools, you have 741 new students showing up next year, you’re going to have to provide teachers for those people. And of course you have salary increases, some are mandated, some are not mandated, and that makes up a large portion of the problem.”

Although there’s been growth in the area, the passage of Act 388 in 2006 granted owner-occupied properties an exemption from school operations millage. The operations budget is where most of the additional expense come from, and Gardner said the district would “absolutely not” be dealing with a deficit without the act.

If the district doesn’t raise taxes, it could dig into next year’s undesignated reserve funds to make up the deficit, a solution that Gardner said he didn’t recommend.

“The question is is it sustainable?” said Gardner. “We’d have to find a sustainable source in the near future. We could do anything for one year. I’m thinking long-term.”

School board Chairman Joe DeFeo and board member Holly Heniford, who sits on the finance committee, have both said they don’t believe the district will need to raise taxes.

The budget talks are still not factoring in any additional costs for school resource officers provided by the county, and the district is still in negotiations with Horry County over how much the district will pay for the officers.

The school board must vote on each budget item by June 30.

Christian Boschult: 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian