84 jobs chopped in SDPC budget battle

LIBERTY — A vocal crowd of about 1,000 people was on hand at Monday night’s called school board meeting, lobbying against several proposed cuts aimed at absorbing a loss of $5 million in stimulus funds.
The board, in a 4-2 vote, cut 84 jobs, information not released to those in attendance of the meeting but disclosed later to the media. The district will lose $5 million in federal stimulus funds and has been considering ways to make up the deficit.

“I presented the board with a plan that could provide a balanced budget with the least impact to our instructional program while also preserving jobs,” school district superintendent Henry Hunt said in a statement issued Tuesday. “I asked the board to use $1.3 million of the General Fund reserve to maintain all assistant principals, all guidance counselors, all media specialists, and all reading interventionists. The board did not approve my recommendation.”

The compromised plan eliminates 20 reading interventionists, 10.5 literacy specialist positions, 2.5 assistant principal positions, three guidance counselor positions, three media specialist positions, 8.5 district services positions, one kindergarten assistant position and nine remedial behavioral health specialists.

“The budget has not been approved — only position eliminations have been approved,” Hunt said.
Some of the cuts will largely affect children needing extra help learning to read, some children with behavior problems, some schools that depend upon assistant principals for discipline problems and faculty employed to furnish those services.

The board also voted to eliminate 4.4 special education teacher and 21 special education assistant positions, Hunt said, but these cuts were not a part of balancing the budget.

“The special education program is reviewed annualy and realigned to meet the needs of children,” Hunt said. “Staffing standards have been applied across all special education categories and allocated accordingly.”

vMore than a dozen law enforcement officers were visible at the meeting, held at the Liberty Middle School auditorium, which barely contained the overflow crowd.

The board discussed the issues during a three-hour-long closed session, then reconvened in public and voted to approve either option A, B or C without identifying what those options were. The vote was split 3-3 on options A and B. Option C passed 4-2 with Jim Shelton of Dacusville and Herb Cooper of Clemson voting against it.

Board chair Alex Saitta said Option C offers a balanced budget.
At one point during the meeting when public input was allowed, former board chair Shelton left his seat and spoke from the public lectern, saying “The action that we will take tonight is the most important of my tenure. It is fitting that it comes on the 150th anniversary of the war of Northern aggression, because the attack comes from Wall Street, New York.”

He then left the auditorium briefly prior to rejoining the board for the executive session.
Shelton’s comments alluded indirectly to Saitta’s career in New York as a financial analyst.
Hunt said the loss of stimulus funds, coupled with continued reductions in state funding mark the fourth consecutive year of budget shortfalls for schools in Pickens County.

Public input was consistent in opposing the closing of Simpson Academy.
Many of those in attendance signed a petition circulated by a newly formed organization called Voice of Pickens County supporting dipping into the district’s reserve fund to keep Simpson Academy open and save 100 jobs.

Simpson Academy offers alternative schooling for at-risk children who haven’t performed well in regular classrooms. Simpson students and their parents and community leaders emphasized what a vital force the school has been in preventing high school drop-outs and insuring academic success.

Larry Finney, a CPA with the district’s external auditor’s firm, reported at the meeting that it is recommended that 16-17 percent of a government’s general operating fund be kept in reserve. However it was unclear after board comments whether all agree the $15 million referred to as a reserve fund for the school district is actually reserve funds or not. One speaker from the public said the S.C. School Board Association recommends keeping 8-10 percent in the so-called reserve fund.

Saitta said the fund was needed for future expenditures.
“It’s not committed but is needed,” he said.
Those who supported drawing on the fund to close the budget gap disagreed, saying the money is needed now.

Neighboring Oconee County’s school district anticipates a $6-7 million deficit, but district officials say they will dip into the district’s $23 million reserve fund to close the gap. Oconee County’s student enrollment is approximately 11,000 and the district operates 23 schools with a student to teacher ratio of 15 to 1.

Saitta said Oconee’s reserve fund is much larger than that of Pickens County’s school district and also that Oconee’s building debt is only around $89 million.

Saitta said next year the School district of Pickens County will pay $23 million in interest on their $600 million building debt. He said his concern about the district’s debt makes him uncomfortable with taking on additional debt to make up the budget deficit for schools.

All of South Carolina’s school districts are in the same financial boat when it comes to shortfalls. Act 388, which changed the way schools are funded, coupled with the economic downturn resulted in continued deficits for schools.

According to information from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only five states in the nation do not currently have budget deficits.