SUMMERVILLE -- Teachers packed the Dorchester County Council chamber. There were so many that they lined the walls and were standing out in the hall. One row in the chamber was filled with district students who came from foreign countries.
The show of force Monday night made its impression on a council about to consider the Dorchester District 2 schools' budget. Not that it hasn't been done before, but the faces are all too familiar to council members with ties to the schools, the crowd this year just too large and the problem glaring: The district can't keep limiting services and teachers while absorbing enough new students each year to fill a new school.
Council members want to balance the budget without a tax increase. But after a few years of revenue cuts that school district officials said totaled $33 million, the district wants a second tax increase in two years.
"Help," one councilman whispered only half teasing, when he saw the audience.
That's where County Council finds itself going into Monday's budget public hearing in St. George and a final vote on the 2011-12 budget on June 6. At the meeting earlier this week, council passed second reading on a budget that doesn't increase taxes, and sent the school's request to its finance committee to decide by June.
"You guys have been tremendous stewards of your money in difficult times," Councilman Bill Hearn said in remarks that were echoed by other council members.
Quality education and competitive tax rates are the two keys to economic development, Councilman Jay Byars told the crowd. "That's the delicate balance we have here."
Superintendent Joe Pye, just named superintendent of the year by a state administrator's group, put it on the line. "We're turning out the product that's going to determine the (economic) success of our county," he said.
District 2 wants to increase a tax on businesses and personal vehicles as far as it legally can to bring $1.5 million more than the $1 million it currently would get. The increase would be $9.36 for the owners of a $20,000 car, $93.60 for a $200,000 commercial property, said Allyson Duke, the district's chief financial officer. The school board is expected to use the money to hire more teachers.
Meanwhile, council continued to disagree whether to hire a full-time emergency management director to replace the recently retired Dennis Clark. Councilman George Bailey wants to combine the job with a fire coordinator job as a cost saver; other council members worry whether both jobs could be handled by one person in an emergency such as a hurricane or earthquake.
"We can't afford to be without an emergency manager," Councilman Richard Rosebrock said during a testy discussion.
"There is such a thing as being stretched too thin," Councilman Willie Davis said.
Bailey insisted that coordinating fire response could be handled by another department employee under the director's oversight in case of an emergency.
"I'm not here to take away any safety factor," he said. "I was elected to do what I can to save taxpayer dollars."
The council committee will consider a staff recommendation combining the emergency planner and fire coordinator jobs instead.