Scoppe: S.666 offers an education in legislative meddling

Associate EditorMarch 19, 2014 

SENATE BILL 666 — the number alone should give you pause — would strip elected school board members of the power to approve their own budget, instead requiring voter approval in a public referendum. I’m sure some of you think that’s just fine, but that’s just the beginning.

The school board would have to hold at least two public hearings on its proposed budget, where people could offer amendments that the board would have to vote up or down on the spot. Never mind that the numbers might not add up, or that the explanations given for the proposals might be fabricated. The last hearing would have to be held just one week before the vote.

There would be no do-over if the budget failed to get a majority vote; the schools would have to operate under the previous year’s budget. That means not just that taxes would not be raised (they wouldn’t necessarily be raised under the proposed budget) but also that nothing about the previous year’s spending could be changed. So if the tax base expanded or the state provided more money to the district, the district couldn’t spend the additional money, even as inflation demanded more of it. And if the revenue declined, well, I suppose the schools would have to operate under an illegal deficit budget.

The bill, given tentative approval last month in the Senate, would apply to only one district, the 10,400-student Darlington County School District. It could become law with the support of as few as four people. Those people were not elected to run this or any other school district. Some of them do not even live in the district.

The bill will not become law, though, because it’s author, Darlington Sen. Gerald Malloy, has decided it will not become law. Instead, he has decided to pursue another route to deal with what he sees as a local school board that is starving the local government: The school board continuously raises taxes, even as it grows its outsized reserves, leaving the County Council helpless to raise its own taxes to pay for desperately needed infrastructure, for fear of driving off what industry the county has.

I’m not going to try to referee a debate over how high the Darlington school taxes should be or how much room they do or don’t leave the County Council to tend to needs beyond schools, because, frankly, those questions should be of little interest to the rest of the state.

Business as usual

But the issues that underlie those questions are a different matter. While the solution proposed in S.666 (now re-filed as S.1080) represents an extraordinary assault on the principles of representative democracy, not to mention good sense, the way the bill came to be and how it could become law are not extraordinary. They’re not even particularly uncommon.

What should be of interest to all of us is what this legislation tells us about the way our government works in South Carolina, from who controls power and how they exercise it to the systemic flaws that are never addressed as a result of that power arrangement.

What should be of interest is that, as a state senator, Mr. Malloy believed it was his job to come up with a solution to what he sees as a problem that his local school district has created for his County Council, even though he acknowledges he’s no expert on school finance and frankly floundered for ideas. In this he is fairly typical, particularly of senators outside the state’s urban centers.

What should be of interest is that Sen. Malloy settled on “the old Jefferson theory of democracy which is mob rule” not because he liked that approach, but because the only other ideas he could come up with were letting the County Council set the budget or letting himself do it (legislators actually do this, to varying degrees, in 10 districts, including two that Mr. Malloy represents), and he didn’t like either one.

What should be of interest is that Sen. Malloy’s tool for effecting change was not a bill to address systemic flaws — and the fact that the local school board is allowed to set taxes on its own is a serious systemic flaw — but a bill that affected a single district.

As such, it can be approved on the authority of those legislators who represent part of that district, rather than requiring the input of the entire Legislature. And if it is approved, that reduces the chances that we’ll ever get a systemic solution to a statewide problem.

Even though most schools are supposed to be run by their elected school boards, the local state legislators routinely pass bills setting policy in their individual districts. In Dillon and Clarendon counties, the local legislators even appoint a countywide board whose members in turn appoint the individual school boards.

Responsibility v. power

This is yet another reminder of how very little our state has advanced from the days when the resident senator made all the decisions back home, which invited him to be dictatorial and distracted him from the business of the state. The dictatorial tendencies may have been diminished; the distraction has not. Although the state constitution has sharply curtailed legislators’ ability to do this legally in most county government matters (“legally” being the key word), it allows them to continue to meddle almost without limit in local school matters.

Nearly a third of the state’s 81 school districts, like the Darlington district, have fiscal autonomy, and it’s something they all want. But Sen. Malloy’s complaints about his local district point to the problem with letting school boards set their own tax rates: They do it in a vacuum. Giving that task to county councils, as is done in another third of the districts, requires a community’s school needs to be weighed against the rest of its needs.

Sen. Malloy is right to see giving county councils control of school taxes as an imperfect solution. But he’s right for the wrong reason. The problem isn’t that this leads to blame games between school boards and county councils, although it does. The problem is much more fundamental: Unlike police protection and water service and planning and zoning, public education is not a local responsibility. It’s a state responsibility. It’s right there in the state constitution. Schools should be funded by the state, not through local taxes.

And thus we have the oddity of state legislators individually clinging to power over their individual school districts while collectively refusing to take responsibility for the state’s system of public education. Or perhaps that’s not odd; perhaps it is explained entirely by the difference between the words “power” and “responsibility.”

Sen. Malloy says he has rejected his mob-rule proposal — which he says was designed primarily to get the attention of the school board, and the public — in favor of a plan to require rebates to taxpayers if a district’s unassigned reserves exceed $15 million. Of course, that bill would apply only to his local district.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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