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Teachers, students may lose big with state budget
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report



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APRIL 6, 2003 - - An average of six teachers per school - - or 6,663 teachers in the state's K-12 instructional staff - - may lose their jobs if the House-passed state budget becomes law.

And that, state Education Department officials say, is a conservative estimate unless the state provides relief for an education cut of more than $217 million since last year's appropriation.

Without help, about the only ways school district can stave off mass layoffs are to raise local taxes or use reserve funds. But most districts, still reeling from multiple cuts over the last two years, don't have much left in reserve.

"This year, it's all subtract, and no add," one administrator remarked.

The House budget whacked the funding building block for education, called "base student cost," for the state's 650,000 students from $2,033 this year to $1,643.

Since the large majority of most education budgets are teacher salary costs paid by the state, the funding loss is critical and likely will affect the biggest cost category - - teachers.

Democratic House members cried during the budget floor debate a few weeks back that cutting the per-student cost showed South Carolina, the state generally at the bottom of the education totem pole, no longer valued education as a priority.

But House GOP leaders say that's nonsense because since Republicans took control of the House eight years ago, it has directed more money to education than Democrats did in the previous eight years.

"This year, we have a tough budget year and all of a sudden, we're not prioritizing," said House Speaker Pro Tem Doug Smith, R-Spartanburg. "That's absurd."

Beyond the political rhetoric, any slash to base student cost is particularly important these days because local school administrators are working on their district budgets for local school boards. In general, they have to assume that base student costs will be $1,643 per year, due to the House's action.

In turn, that means more headlines across the state will highlight how schools are running out of money and how they plan to deal with it. Here are a few examples from stories over the last couple of weeks:

  • In Berkeley County, up to 100 teachers and 75 support staff may be cut, taxes may go up $58 per $100,000 value on a home and all school employees may be furloughed five unpaid days.

  • Beaufort County educators are considering increasing classroom size, reduced summer school offerings and fewer English tutors.

  • Georgetown County, which is facing a $6.5 million shortfall next year, may cut 15 teacher positions and is considering a tax increase.

  • Orangeburg school administrators don't expect direct teacher layoffs, but say some positions may be eliminated through attrition.

  • More than 200 teachers, parents and principals turned out Tuesday at a feisty Charleston County School Board meeting with signs that said, "We cannot do more with less."

  • Horry County school board members voted this week to raise taxes by 5.5 mills to generate $5.3 million so it didn't have to cut teachers or increase class size.

Unless something happens quickly, the news isn't going to get any better. In the end, students will be hurt. Recent advances in education will become a thing of the past and we'll solidify our position at the bottom.

This year because SC House members are unwilling to fund education at current levels, they have shifted the problem to local school boards to solve. Essentially, House members have created an unfunded mandate for school boards, which are under the gun to respond to increased educational expectations created by the state.

It's all part of a continuing funding shift that started a few years back when states got burdened with unfunded mandates to pay for things the federal government didn't want to fund. Now the state has caught on and is shifting the burden to local governments.


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