School board chairman talks upcoming budget

In the coming weeks leading up to July 1, the Pickens County School Board will be discussing the FY 2015-16 operating budget. If history is a good predictor, then we are 12-17 Page 4A.inddsure to see this debate turn toward the discussion of whether or not to raise taxes. For the last 13 years, the Pickens County School Board has voted not to raise taxes for operational purposes, while other school districts have continued to raise theirs to keep pace with increased costs. Much of the hesitation to raise taxes in Pickens County was a direct result of the school district’s building program that began almost 10 years ago and concluded in 2013. Since the building program started, each school board meeting begins with a litany of speakers during public citizen input demanding the district “live within their means and not raise taxes.”

In November 2014, I was asked to serve as chairman of the Pickens County School Board. At that time I requested a committee to be formed to address the strategic vision of the school district. Throughout several meetings we began to identify priorities we felt were paramount in our long range vision. The first priority that came out of that committee was to address compensation deficiencies within in the district, or as the initiative was stated- “get our people right.”

In May 2014, Dr. Danny Merck assumed the position of superintendent in Pickens County. A lifelong resident of Pickens County, Dr. Merck was educated in Pickens County schools and has served as a teacher, coach and administrator in Pickens County during the vast majority of his career. Since assuming the helm of the district, Dr. Merck has been hearing from those that implore him not to propose raising taxes and instead have the district to “live within its means”, while others have constantly reminded him that our teachers, administrators, and staff are the lowest paid in the region. According to a recent survey, Pickens County is one of only three districts out of 81 in South Carolina that are two state-mandated step increases behind in teacher pay.

Tasked with the conflicting messages and ongoing community debate, Dr. Merck, with the help of our district leadership and principals, set out to develop a budget for this coming school year. The result of their hard work may be considered one of the most favorable budgets we’ve seen in Pickens County in many years.

Dr. Merck’s budget proposal includes no tax increase. Instead, his budget takes advantage of increased local and state revenues, in addition to a plan he and his staff developed to return the district to a true “21.5 to 1” student/teacher ratio over the next two years. In the past the district has maintained they were 21.5 to 1 in their ratio, while many schools were held harmless. An example of a school that will lose teachers is Pickens Middle school, where we’ve seen students choose to attend the charter school sponsored by Clemson Youth Learning Institute. The growing enrollment at Clemson YLI has resulted in decreased enrollment at Pickens Middle. As a result, Pickens Middle will lose 3.5 teachers this coming year, and another 3.5 in 2016 if attendance continues at its current pace. In all, Dr. Merck’s plan eliminated 16 teaching positions through attrition this year. His plan also focused on realigning our custodial staff, which resulted in a savings of almost $300,000. By taking these actions, Dr. Merck’s plan saved the school district $1.3 million in operational funding this year. No one lost their job, all eliminated positions were cut through attrition (jobs of those leaving voluntarily or retiring were not filled).

Dr. Merck’s budget does not include a tax increase; however, it does capitalize on increased state and local revenues and implements cost cutting measures to maximize operational funding.

Some would argue that higher pay for teachers doesn’t necessarily equate to increased performance; however, I have seen first-hand many of our area’s most talented teachers graduating from our local colleges and universities choosing to start their career at neighboring districts because the pay is higher. Our students are the direct beneficiaries of having the best and brightest teachers and we must work to recruit the best and brightest. We have even been told by neighboring district administrators how much they appreciate Pickens County for providing them with qualified teachers, as many that do start their career in Pickens County often transfer out to neighboring districts for higher pay after establishing themselves for a few years in Pickens County. We simply cannot continue to be the training program for neighboring school districts.

Another reason we need to look at increasing our competitiveness in our region is due to the TERI (Teacher and Employee Retirement Incentive) program ending on June 30, 2018. In just a few years, we will see many of our most experienced teachers throughout the region retire as the TERI program sunsets in our state. This will open up a large number of teaching jobs, not only in Pickens County, but in surrounding districts that currently offer much higher salaries. If we choose not to position our district to be competitive by that point, we will have a very difficult time in retaining our existing teachers and attracting the best new teachers. We must start working on this now, in order to be competitive a few years down the road.

Some of the highlights of the superintendent’s budget proposal are:

• Teacher/student ratio a true 21.5 to1

• One state-mandated pay increase for certified employees

• One pay step increase for bus drivers

• Catching up on one pay step for certified teachers (we will still be one-step behind on the state mandated minimum teacher salary schedule)

• Catching up of one pay step increase for eligible classified employees

• 2 percent cost of living adjustment for all administrative and classified employees

• 2 percent non-recurring bonus for teachers with 24 years of experience or more (teachers with 24 or more years of experience normally do not receive step increases)

• 4.5 percent healthcare cost increase will be absorbed by the district

• 0.16 percent increase in retirement cost will be absorbed by the district

The budget leaves out many crucial objectives that I feel are very important, such as: increasing coaching and band supplements (which are the lowest in the state), catching up on the second state-mandated step increase, increases to nurse, data entry and bookkeeper pay scales, and increasing school supply allocations. If additional funds become available to Pickens County with the passing of the state budget, I would advocate we look at these additional areas where our students would ultimately benefit.

While Dr. Merck’s budget does leave out some of the initiatives I strongly support, it accomplishes one of our main priorities, which is addressing compensation deficiencies, something that has plagued our school district for years and resulted in our district being at a competitive disadvantage throughout the region. It also strikes a compromise with those that want the district to “live within its means”.

I applaud Dr. Merck, his leadership team, our principals and our district teachers and staff for the hard work, tough decisions, and compromise that has gone into developing this budget proposal. I strongly support this proposal, and ask that our county support it as well.