For six consecutive years, the Aiken County Public School District has not requested an increase in operational millage to fund the annual budget.
The 2019-20 budget, which Aiken County School Board members heard for the first time Tuesday at a special called work session, also will not require an increase in county taxes.
District Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford attributed the long run without a tax increase to efficient use of taxpayer's money, including reduced utility costs that are putting money back into classrooms, and judicious planning by the district's finance office.
“We have operated within our means,” Alford said Tuesday before the meeting. “Not only have we done that, but we've been able to find efficiencies to come back and fill what I think have been long-time needs in this community.”
Alford cited programs and capital improvements that benefited from savings.
For the first time, the district will have security cameras on every bus and in every elementary, middle and high school when the 2019-20 academic years starts in August.
Savings also have provided more curricular choices and opportunities for students – including new language immersion programs at Belvedere, Clearwater and Millbrook elementary schools starting next year – and expanded school choice for parents, Alford said.
The savings have helped pay for technology enhancements, including software, hardware and infrastructure improvements.
“Our technology enhancements have been astronomical,” Alford said. “Our number of devices has tripled and quadrupled.”
Through cost savings, the district now provides recurring funds and budgets for fine and performing arts programs in all district high schools. The 2019-20 budget would include those funds for all middle schools and the 2020-21 budget for all elementary schools.
“We've provided instruments for bands and bought brand new uniforms for every single high school,” Alford said.
Alford attributed the savings to the employees in the district's finance department, led by Tray Traxler, the district's chief officer of finance, and its improved credit rating.
“Our finance department is probably one of the best in the state,” Alford said. “Many folks don't know that our finance department has been recognized annually every since I've been here – and before that – for excellence in reporting as it relates to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report,” Alford said. “We get that certification each year, which speaks to our desire to be transparent.”
The report, known as CAFR, is a set of financial statements for state, municipality or other governmental agencies that comply with the accounting requirements established by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.
Traxler was voted the president of the S.C. Association of School Business Officials and is responsible for providing training and support for financial officers in school districts across the state.
“That speaks a lot,” Alford said.
The district's improved credit rating saved “countless dollars in interest,” Alford said.
“Probably one of the hardest things a school district can do is improve its credit rating, but we did,” he said. “We improved our credit rating in 2016, which has been an astronomical payoff for the community because when we've done bonds and do bonds, we get such great rates.”
The district currently is managing 15 construction or renovation projects that rely on bonds for funding around the county.
“Going six years in a row, we have not asked for anything more,” Alford said. “You can't do that in your house unless someone manages money really well. Our folks do an outstanding job of that.
“They believe in financial management. They believe in having a prudent and conservative approach. This team is serious about its responsibility to managing public funds. How do you get more every year and not ask for more? It's just got to be great management.”