Principals propose options to balance district budget

COUNTY — With a projected $7 million general fund deficit looming on the horizon, discussion between school board trustees and an audience full of Pickens County school principals was heated during the first workshop for the school district’s 2011-12 general fund budget following Monday night’s school board meeting.

“The deficit is worse than even I thought,” board chair Alex Saitta said. “The estimates we initially had had been $4-5 million. It is in the $7 million area. State revenue is not growing like it should be almost two years into an economic recovery.”

Superintendent Henry Hunt and Director of Finance for the District Melissa Campbell emphasized that Pickens County is still in the preliminary stages of developing and balancing the budget.

“Due to so many unknowns, the information we have can change and most likely will change,” said Hunt.

At present, the FY 11-12 budget is being constructed based on a very conservative base student cost of $1600 despite State Legislation predictions of a $1788 student base cost. Developing a budget at a $1600 base student cost and a $7 million deficit means that major cuts are going to have to come from somewhere.

Principal-supported expenditure reductions include furloughs (five days for teachers and 10 days for administrators), the elimination of teacher Visa cards, further school supply reductions and the implementation of instructional fees in the amount of $25 at the elementary level and $35 at middle and high school levels, and, if necessary, an increase in class size from 21:1 to 22:1 student teacher ratio.
Board members Ben Trotter, Saitta and Jim Shelton said they would not vote for furloughs nor were they in favor of an increase in class sizes.

The absolute last resort to balance the budget in the wake of the $7 million deficit would include cutting 32.1 full time assistant principals and guidance counselors. In this event, assistant principals and guidance counselors will more than likely shift into classroom positions, which means the district will lose more teachers.

“I was disappointed by the district recommendation to eliminate 22 more classroom teaching positions, when so many other non-classroom areas still can be cut,” said Saitta. “Gosh, some of our core classes already have 32 and 33 students in them. Plus I heard it with my own ears at the January meeting that a majority of the board members told the administration it didn’t want classroom teaching positions eliminated again this year.”

Members of the Pickens County Principals Association (PCPA) disagree.
In a collective letter written to the district, PCPA President Leonard Williams states, “Some board members have said that they will avoid classroom cuts at all costs, and that is an admirable stance. We can all agree that we want to stay away from classroom cuts; however, there comes a point at which classroom instruction is eroded more by cutting support from teachers than by adding an additional student to each class.”

“It is time to make those tough decisions,” said Shelton. “Otherwise we are simply delaying the inevitable and kicking the can a little further down the road.”

Vocal members of the PCPA, including Liberty Elementary School Principal Lowell Haynes, Gettys Middle School Principal Mike Corey, and Pickens High Principal Marion Lawson, believe that assistant principals and guidance counselor are key in classroom achievement.

“We deal with real life,” said Lawson. “You [board members] have an obligation to take care of the kids in Pickens County.”