Fay Sprouse gets it.
The longtime superintendent of schools in Ware Shoals District 51 appeared before Greenwood County Council this week, as council is beginning to deliberate the fiscal year 2015 budget.
In fact, superintendents of all three Greenwood County districts addressed council during the budget workshop. These workshops typically can be quite interesting, as this is the time when districts can lobby council to consider millage increases — i.e. tax hikes.
Greenwood District 50 asked council to consider an increase of 1.9 mills in operations. District 50’s projected revenues are $60.75 million, while its projected expenditures are $60.95 million. A 1.9 mill increase could close that $200,000 gap.
Meanwhile, Ninety Six District 52 is asking council to approve a debt service millage increase of 14.1 mills (going from 36.4 mills to 50.5 mills) to begin paying off a bond that was used for the construction of a new track and field facility.
When it was Sprouse’s turn to address council, she didn’t ask for any tax increases. Not in operations, not in debt service.
As proposed, District 51’s operations millage would remain at 178.7 mills, while debt service millage will remain at 15.8 mills, the same as last year.
It’s not that Ware Shoals District 51 doesn’t need more funding. In fact, it desperately needs more.
Sprouse candidly told council she, District 51 staff and the district’s board of trustees will be having some serious talks in coming weeks, and will examine what cuts or reserves can be used to balance the budget.
But, Sprouse knows the real answer to bolstering the district’s financial future is not found by asking council for a few extra dollars through a nominal county millage increase.
It will come through economic development in the northern part of the county.
IN HER TALK WITH COUNCIL, Sprouse noted asking for a millage increase would likely be more trouble than it is actually worth, with all the factors considered.
“I could ask for an increase,” Sprouse said. “But, with the value of a mill in Ware Shoals being about $6,400, and my millage cap of 2.6 mills, that’s only going to get us about $16,000. So, it is not really worth the time, trouble and uproar a tax increase causes.”
Sprouse went on to, correctly, label the state’s much-maligned school funding mechanism, Act 388, a “terrible piece of legislation.”
She also pointed out Ware Shoals District 51 is among the most impoverished districts in South Carolina,
“If you consider the local tax base as a measure of wealth, District 51 is the poorest in the state, by far,” Sprouse said. “Our assessed value per pupil is $4,260. The next poorest school district is Clarendon 3, and their assessed value per pupil is $7,728.
“So, (council) needs to know that Greenwood County has a lot of diversity and the northern end is a pocket of poverty, basically.”
The superintendent said Ware Shoals’ poverty rating was about 74 percent.
Considering those facts, Sprouse is correct in surmising that a tax increase that would net the district just $16,000 (yet would still put constituents in an uproar, simply because of the words “tax increase,”) is fruitless.
The issue that really needs to be tackled is poverty and economic development within the bounds of the district. And, folks, that’s a big bear to tackle. It won’t — it can’t — happen overnight.
But, it can happen.
Sprouse encouraged council to consider the northern end of the county when recruiting industry.
“When you consider sending industry, push it up the road (toward Ware Shoals),” Sprouse implored council. “We would like to see the area developed. I have spoken with Heather (Simmons Jones) at Partnership Alliance and she tells me they are trying to push industry (to the northern part of the county).
“We need some help in that manner. A tax increase isn’t going to help me at this point. Raising our assessed values is going to help.”
Sprouse’s address to council was one of the more refreshing I have heard in a while. It was different to see someone looking at the big picture, rather than putting their hand out for a few shekels.
It’s not surprising, though, as Sprouse and her crew in Ware Shoals have been doing more with less for years. Considering the levels of poverty there, the schools have fared relatively well in regard to state and federal accountability standards, and the district boasts a National Blue Ribbon school in Ware Shoals Elementary.
County council and economic development officials would be wise to consider Sprouse’s ideas about bolstered economic development in the northern end of the county. After all, it is the area of the county that enjoys the closest proximity to the I-85 corridor and all the activity that is going on there.
Ware Shoals is more than a home to the Catfish Feastival or a place where we can frolic on the banks of the Saluda River. The people there are blue collar, smart and tougher than leather. They’ve been up and they’ve been down.
They are ready to be up again. It’s time to go to work.
Trainor is the senior staff writer at the Index-Journal. Contact him at 864-943-5650; email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @IJCHRISTRAINOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper's opinion.