School Districts Turn Financial Crisis Into Media Blitz

The Crowd Pleasers

Bureaucrats bask in media attention

No one wants hard working South Carolina teachers to lose their jobs. Maintaining an adequate number of effective teachers should be priority for school districts during a time of financial uncertainty.

While many administrators and bureaucrats pay constant lip service to this principle, actions on the part of some public school districts show a readiness to put teachers on the chopping block to gain ground in wringing more money out of drained state coffers.

Unfortunately, Midlands’ parents eager to look into the reality of school funding will be disappointed again by The State, whose reporting is transparently unwilling to dig deeper than the deceptive sound bytes of district spokespeople.

Lexington/ Richland 5:
Lex/Rich 5 has blazed new trails in exploiting financial turmoil to its own advantage. Even after a seemingly unending string of administrative scandals and misrepresentations, the district was somehow able to push through a bond referendum to finance the construction of new schools to accommodate a “growing” student population. In recent weeks, the district has announced the firing of 70 teachers as a result of not receiving federal stimulus funds, and hinted that these might not be the last.

How Lex/Rich 5 is pulling a fast one:

As The Voice previously reported, Lex/Rich 5’s own year-end report points to current cuts in staff being the result of a ten year hiring binge, not because of budget cuts and the lack of stimulus money. From 1999 to 2008, the number of teaching staff increased by 57%, while the student population increased by only 16%! After a district bond referendum was foisted off on trusting taxpayers, demographic information was released stating that school populations in the district were not expected to increase in the next few years. So much for desperately needed new schools. Teachers and taxpayers are getting short changed so bureaucrats can play at being victims. Lex/Rich 5 has jumped at the chance to blame its decade-long pattern of mismanagement and misrepresentation on something else, and is not above using teachers that are casualties of the district’s own shady dealings to do so.

Lexington 1:
Where most reasonable people would balk at the idea of raising taxes in a recession, Lexington 1 has forged ahead against the current conventional wisdom and social expectation.
According to Ed Harmon, Lexington 1 school board chairman, raising taxes might be necessary to “protect classrooms” from budget cuts. The district insists that a tax hike would keep 30 teachers employed that would otherwise have to be let go.
The State newspaper reports, “Lexington 1 now has 1,704 teachers. But retaining all those jobs might require a tax increase some board members don’t want. Keeping 30 teachers means a property tax hike of $34 on a $100,000 home, the new plan estimates. There is reluctance to raise taxes in a recession but ‘it’s something we’re going to have to consider,’ Harmon said.”
By the school district’s logic, there are only two options available to families in Lexington 1:
1.    Don’t raise taxes, and sign the firing notice for thirty teachers, watch class sizes increase, and educational quality start dropping.
2.    Raise taxes, keep teachers employed, and maintain high quality of education that Lexington 1 is known for.

What about those reserves?
There is another opportunity that Lexington 1’s school board would just as soon not consider. Fitsnews recently publicized the numbers on just how much money public school districts are stashing away, all while tearfully claiming that firing teachers is a necessary course of action. Lexington 1 is sitting on an impressive $18,932,830 cash reserve that it could easily dip into to preserve teacher jobs. Instead, bureaucrats want to keep the cash, and put more pressure on teachers and strapped South Carolina taxpayers.
Kershaw School District:
Following the lead of several other Midlands school districts, Kershaw County School District is suggesting that taxes be raised on businesses and rental properties to help make up the $650,000 “lost” as a result of lower than anticipated tax revenue.
Mara Jones, a school board member, is willing to hit businesses with additional taxes; a step she says is necessary to keep teacher positions. “Our classrooms are (at) maximum capacity; our children sit wall-to-wall.” Donnie Wilson, the district’s chief finance officer echoes her fears, stating that it is “painfully obvious” that the district will not have enough cash to operate for the rest of 2009. Kershaw school superintendent Frank Morgan -a longtime reader of The Voice-points out that spending cuts “hurt children in a way that can never be regained.”

So there’s no fat to trim in Kershaw?
The Voice is of the opinion that parents losing jobs because of overtaxed businesses moving or closing can also “hurt children in a way that can never be regained.” Kershaw is no exception to the other school districts that have set aside percentages of their budget. According to the data published by Fitsnews on the subject, Kershaw County School District should have stores of more than $4.8 Million that they could easily draw on without crippling local businesses.  This might also be a fine opportunity for Kershaw County to evaluate the 40-some district employees who are making over $80,000 a year. It’s a safe bet none of them are classroom teachers!

Parents in South Carolina deserve to know the truth behind why taxes are being raised and teachers are being laid off. Families dealing with the daily struggle of putting food on the table should not manipulated by propaganda and shoddy reporting into giving more of their limited resources to districts that are unaccountable, and doing everything they can to remain so.
If public school districts want to shake off the system-over-student label that is characterizing the perceptions of many parents across the Midlands, they ought to show leadership by refocusing their resources and organizational structures during this economy-wide crisis, not try to exploit difficult times to line district coffers.


8 responses to “School Districts Turn Financial Crisis Into Media Blitz

  1. Frank Morgan

    I thought it might be useful for your readers to get some additional perspective on this issue. At the beginning of FY 2008-09, the Kershaw County School District had a reserve of $3.9 million, or about 5.4% of our General Fund budget. These funds are used as cash flow for payroll until state and local revenues start to arrive in November.
    This year, our district cut about $4.3 million during the school year in response to state revenue shortfalls. Cuts included salary reductions, furloughs, position eliminations, and as many operational decreases as could be feasibly made. An assistant superintendent and a director’s position were eliminated. We also used about $2 million of our fund balance to cover both the state and local shortfalls. We took the approach we did to protect classroom teaching and direct services to students to the greatest degree possible. Our fund balance is now about $1.9 million, or about 2.9% of the budget we will adopt in a couple of weeks.
    In terms of local tax revenue – Under Act 388, a growth plus inflation factor is used to determine minimum local effort under the Education Improvement Act. For us, that would mean about a $1.45 million increase in local funding for next year. Our request to County Council is for no increase. As a district, we made the decision to stay with a level local funding request about six months ago. We thought it was the responsible thing to do. We stand by that decision.
    I hope this information is helpful to your readers.
    As always, I find it very informative to look at your site. I particularly enjoy what you do with Photo Shop.
    With best regards,
    Dr. Frank E. Morgan
    Kershaw County School District

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