Horry County school board to take up budget, building Monday night

Raises for some Horry County Schools employees could be in jeopardy for a second year and will be at the center of Horry County school board discussions Monday night, along with the district’s latest building plan.

The 2014-15 budget totals about $564.8 million and will have its first reading at the meeting. It includes about $3.6 million to cover STEP increases for the 75 percent of district employees who are eligible, based on their years of experience, but the board wants a closer look at a proposed 2 percent increase – about $1.7 million – for employees who already are at the top of their pay schedule.

Employees who are not eligible for a STEP increase did not receive an adjustment in compensation this year, and some board members are not sure it is something the district can afford.

“They went to the top of their STEPs, and some of them are making an awful lot of money,” said board Chairman Joe DeFeo. “I personally do not believe we can sustain the cost with our current taxes, and I’m not going to raise taxes for this.”

Board member Karen McIlrath said that like last year, she also is opposed to giving the pay raise.

“The reason being is it costs nearly $2 million,” she said. “We either have to cut programs or dip into our unreserved fund, and I don’t think either of those options is appropriate at this time.”

The board will consider other options for those employees, which have been outlined by the district, including a 1 percent salary increase that would cost about $850,000. A salary increase would be a recurring cost for the district, and officials noted that employees at the top of the pay scale are not necessarily eligible for retirement.

The possibility of a bonus/single payment also was raised at last week’s meeting. A one-time, 2 percent salary payment, in lieu of a 2 percent salary increase, would cost about $1.5 million, with the $200,000 savings coming from the savings on the employer retirement contribution, according to the district. A one-time, 1 percent salary payment, in lieu of a 1 percent salary increase, would cost about $750,000. That type of payment would not be considered as part of an employee’s regular salary base.

Discussion also will continue on a proposed building plan from board member Jeffrey Garland, which is still a work in progress and won’t be finalized Monday, DeFeo said.

The suggested pay-as-you-go plan includes three phases and ongoing projects over a 10-year period at a total cost of $427.6 million. The board decided that, if approved, the plan must still be reviewed annually.

The plan’s Phase I priorities are additions to North Myrtle Beach Middle School and Midland Elementary School, a replacement for the Horry County Education Center and the creation of an intermediate/middle school for the St. James attendance area.

Phase II contains the creation of a new middle school for the Carolina Forest attendance area, a replacement for Socastee Elementary School and a Myrtle Beach intermediate/middle school replacement.

Phase III has an addition to Aynor Middle School, district office expansion, a North Myrtle Beach High School renovation and the creation of a new middle school for the Socastee attendance area. The plan also includes ongoing projects such as emergency maintenance and technology needs for the entire district.

Garland’s building priorities were laid out in part according to the cost of each project to ensure the district could afford each phase, but McIlrath said some of the priorities may have to change.

“My biggest concern with Jeffrey’s plan is that Carolina Forest’s middle school is in Phase II, and I think it needs to be pushed up,” she said. “There are also big issues at Myrtle Beach Middle with overcrowding, and the intermediate school is in a building that’s over 50 years old.”

McIlrath said while she also wants a new Horry County Education Center, it may not be a project that should be in Phase I. HCS Superintendent Cindy Elsberry has said she wants to revise the program at the center, and any changes could affect the total cost of that project, McIlrath said.

The board could take out $50 million – or more – in bonds and move up the building timetable. McIlrath said she is more than ready to move forward, and it is ridiculous that the building plan has been discussed since she took her seat in 2011, but the board still must be careful when it comes to incurring debt.

“Some of us realize we have got to stop talking and take action,” she said, “but we don’t want to saddle a future board with issues with the debt we’re creating. That’s the dilemma.”