By Scott Harper
The Georgetown Times- April 7, 2010

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — A key Republican leader says the county school district is failing to provide adequate financial information on its Web site and needs to be more open with taxpayers.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Ray Cleary says he “dropped the ball” when voting in favor of a controversial State House bill that would allow the school board to use borrowed construction money for operating expenses.

“I am at fault and it will not happen again,” Cleary said.

Easier access

The key Republican, Tom Swatzel, Georgetown County GOP chairman — on behalf of the party — sent a letter to School Board Chairman Jim Dumm seeking easier access to the district's budget, expenditures and board meeting information via the school district's Web site.

"In investigating why school board members believe they should be above the law against deficit spending found in our state constitution, we found that they don't post on their Web site even the most basic financial information for public scrutiny — a complete school district budget, an annual financial statement and audit, or even an online check register," Swatzel said.

"Taxpayers are entitled to easier, faster, and more complete access to this important budget information, especially when board members and Reps. Miller and Anderson are trying to do an end run around the state constitution's prohibition on deficit spending by any unit of government in South Carolina.”

Swatzel said the board currently posts online “a partial district budget that's misleading in that federal revenues, capital expenditures, fund balances, and debt service are missing from the document.”

He also said the district — like the City of Georgetown — should post an online check register “so the public can scrutinize in detail how the school district spends money each month.”

Swatzel also asked the board to post online prior to a board meeting all decision documents that will be used for that meeting.

"It's only fair that the public be given the same opportunity as board members to review these materials prior to a meeting," Swatzel said.

More documentation

Dumm said Tuesday he would also like to see more of the documentation mentioned by Swatzel online.

“I have no problem with any of that,” Dumm said, adding he plans to speak with Superintendent Dr. Randy Dozier next week about how difficult it will be to add the information to the Web site.

The school board is the only local government body to televise its monthly meetings. Swatzel said that is good but “that's not a substitute for providing taxpayers with online access to basic school district financial information.”

OK’d without reading

In voting for the controversial state House bill, Cleary, a Republican, admitted Tuesday he OK'd the bill - sponsored by Rep. Vida Miller and supported by Rep. Carl Anderson — both Democrats — without reading the document.

The senator from Murrells Inlet, a practicing dentist, said it was on a Thursday afternoon when Sen. Yancey McGill approached him with the bill.

Cleary said he thought the bill was giving the school board permission to keep a sizable amount of money in reserves.

He was about to leave to attend a class that is required to keep his dentist license when he was presented with the bill.

“I believe in Home Rule and I have no problem with school boards keeping reserves, if that is the board's decision,” Cleary said in explaining why he agreed to the bill.

When he returned home three days later and read a news article about the bill, he realized it wasn't about money in reserves, it was about the use of borrowed money to pay salaries and other expenses.

“I didn't read the bill. I need to be whipped. I beg forgiveness,” Cleary said.

He said he is opposed to using borrowed money in the general fund. For one reason, he said, it could hurt the district when it attempts to get loans in the future.

According to Miller and Dumm, the bill was the idea of four board members who discussed the measure with Miller and Anderson during a visit to Columbia last month.

Cleary said he also “has heartburn” with the fact the matter was not discussed and approved by the full school board, just the four who made the trip to Columbia.

The bill is now awaiting action by Gov. Mark Sanford.

“I am 99 percent sure he will veto it,” Cleary said.

If Miller and Anderson vote to override the veto, Cleary said he will vote to uphold the governor's decision.

“I want the school board to take a formal vote on this,” Cleary said. Otherwise, he will not agree to overriding a veto and the bill will die.

Dumm said last week the way Republicans have characterized the bill makes it sound as if the district is about to borrow new funds to make ends meet.

He explained the money will always be left over construction funds after a project is complete. There are times, he said, when a project is completed for less than the amount anticipated.

It would be that money that would be used in the general fund, he said, not new borrowed money.

Some have asked if this new funding method would tempt future board members to “pad” project costs so there will be a balance to draw from once a project is complete.

Dumm said that cannot happen because all the projects are placed up for bids and the bid documents are public information.