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Editor's Note: School tax hike deserves closer scrutiny
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ONE OF the more frustrating hallmarks of local politics is the way voters here are so easily bamboozled about taxes.

Chatham County voters are often told they can keep property taxes low if they’ll just vote for Sales Tax X, only to hear the next year that the same folks who made that promise want to raise property taxes too.

In its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Savannah-Chatham Public Schools—one of the poorest performing districts in the one of the poorest performing states in the union, and awash in new construction cash from ESPLOST—now wants to raise the millage rate for property taxes.

Sure, it’s a smallish increase, amounting to about $60 a year for a house worth $150K. (Then again, would you think it smallish if you were asked to get out your checkbook and write a check for that amount?)

And to be fair, the local school tax rate is not only quite low by historic local standards, but low compared to other districts in the state as well.

The tax hike includes funding a 2 percent cost of living raise, not only for teachers but for administrative personnel. The latter are already among the highest paid public servants in the area, and arguably among those with the least impressive performance.

The increase—tentatively approved by a narrow 5-4 margin last week—takes place against the backdrop of a dispute between longtime School Superintendent Thomas Lockamy and a new-look School Board under the presidency of Jolene Byrne.

In the most recent meeting, Byrne—potential swing vote on the tax increase—pointed out that board members hadn’t even seen the budget yet, though they were supposed to receive it by May 21. But Lockamy was asking them to vote yes anyway.

The meeting contained this unfortunate exchange:

Byrne: “It is our job as a board to analyze these things and not to rubber stamp them. Otherwise there is no reason for a board.”

Lockamy: “I don’t expect the board to rubber stamp, but I do expect you to respect my recommendations.”

It’s easy to ascribe nefarious intent to Lockamy here, but the much more likely explanation is this has more to do with him adjusting to a new board president.

Previous President Joe Buck specialized in keeping the peace and balancing the various competing concerns of board members. He did that quite well, but deferred to Lockamy on most day-to-day operations.

Byrne, however, was elected with a mandate to keep a closer eye on things. One assumes that includes having a look at the budget before actually voting on it.

There are other issues. For example, in-house school bus routing is proposed in the aftermath of switching the contract from the horrid First Student to MV Transportation.

But drill down and you’ll see the new budget calls for the hiring of four routing specialists, at about double the salary of similar specialists with Chatham Area Transit.

Also, they will train for a full year before actually routing buses, while MV continues to get paid for the same service.

More concerning, the new budget seems to require no department to make any cuts, in any amount. Yet they want more taxes, ostensibly to recover from state budget cuts.

I understand that the funding formula for public schools might change radically given the upcoming likely adoption of a different model in accordance with the Governor's mandate that each district in the state adopt one of three "flexibility options" this month: Status Quo, IEE/Strategic Waiver, or Charter.

But wouldn't that mean the budget deserves even closer scrutiny at such an important crossroads?

There are public hearings on the increase at the Whitney Administrative Complex at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. June 17 and at 6 p.m. June 24. Final vote will be shortly thereafter.

Regardless of how you feel about the schools and the tax hike, it’s your money and your right to get involved.