Kay Keeler, principal of St. Helena Elementary School, adresses Beaufort County Council on Monday night. Keeler spoke in support of a proposed iPad initiative in the school board's $177M budget.(Photo: Photo by CASEY CONLEY)
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The Beaufort County Council gave final approval Monday to a $177.9 million school district budget that raises property taxes and funds a new iPad initiative.
After weeks of debate that centered around the iPad proposal, council voted 7-3 to support the budget, which eliminates 30 district positions and includes 2 percent raises for teachers. The raises are state-mandated.
While lamenting the state of school funding in South Carolina -- the burden of which falls mainly on businesses and second-home owners -- Beaufort County Schools superintendent Valerie Truesdale expressed gratitude for the council's "vote of confidence."
"We thank you all for your belief in our schools and our kids," Truesdale said. "We won't let you down."
The budget includes a $1.8 million expenditure to buy iPads, supplementing the $3.7 million in federal funding available for the program. The district is buying about 7,600 of the devices for students in grades six through 12.
District officials say the tablet computers, which are cheaper and more versatile than laptops, will not go home with the students. Down the road, however, the district hopes to replace some paper textbooks with electronic versions.
Council sets the school district's upper spending limit and the property-tax rate but cannot adjust individual line items. Council will officially set the tax rate in August.
In its current form, the budget would bring a property tax increase of $30 on a non-owner-occupied home valued at $250,000. The budget, which takes effect July 1, marks the second tax increase in six years.
However, that tax increase could drop depending on state budget negotiations currently under way in Columbia. The budget passed by the state Senate would bring an additional $2.2 million to the school district, of which $1.4 million could be used to offset the increase. The S.C. House plan also would raise the allocation to local governments, but by less than the Senate version.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said Monday afternoon that the issue was still not settled.
As they have for the past three council meetings, several county residents lobbied against the tax increase. But unlike some recent meetings, school budget supporters seemed to outnumber opponents.
Priscilla Drake, principal of Whale Branch Early College High School, said students there have had good results with a separate laptop program. She said the school had a "100 percent return rate" for the computers at year's end.
"Our students use the technology as a tool for learning," she said. "Our teachers use the technology to engage their learners."
Council opinion on the school budget did not change in the two weeks since the public hearing. Chairman Weston Newton and councilmen Steve Baer and Brian Flewelling cast the three "no" votes.
Councilman Rick Caporale, who voted for the plan at second reading, was absent.
Beaufort County board of education chairman Fred Washington Jr. said he looks forward to building on recent progress.
"What I am pleased about and what I look forward to is demonstrating that they placed their confidence in us and we will uphold their confidence," he said. "I expect to show continued improvement."
In other action: Voted to partner with Bluffton to negotiate with a company interested in relocating to Buckwalter Technology Park. The company name was not disclosed, but the move could result in $11 million in new investment, protect 130 jobs, attract up to 40 jobs from out of state and create 100 new jobs in five years, officials said.