School board OKs budget

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

PICKENS — By a vote of 5-1, the Pickens County School Board approved third and final reading last week of its proposed $114.9 million budget for fiscal year 2017.

The budget, which went into effect Friday and continue through June 30, 2017, includes a step increase for certified positions on the teacher pay scale and the addition of a 23rd-year step to the teacher pay scale, effective for all teachers with 23 or more years of experience.

Also included is a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for certified teachers on the teacher pay scale, a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for classified and administrative staff and an increase in the bus driver minimum salary schedule of 3.2 percent plus one year of service step.

There is also a 2 percent increase for nurses in addition to one year of experience step and a new assistant principal salary scale, with starting pay of $65,000 for elementary assistant principals, $70,000 for middle school and $75,000 regardless of degrees or years of experience, with assistant principals eligible for cost-of-living adjustments in future years but not steps, and assistant principals who currently make more than they would under the new pay scale maintaining their current salary.

Also featured is a base student cost of $2,350 and school and school supply allocations adjusted to the budget committee recommending a “new normal” schedule that is 75 percent of the old schedule.

The budget includes a superintendent contingency of $100,000, board contingency of $100,000 and $1.7 million use of fund balance for transfer to the capital projects fund.

The new budget, based upon the Senate version of the state appropriations bill, also does not feature a tax increase.

School District of Pickens County superintendent Danny Merck said “a ton of people” contributed to crafting the 2017 fiscal year budget. Merck said he is pleased to see the budget include salary increases for employees and administrators.

“The teacher shortage is real,” Merck said. “It is coming upon us quickly, and school districts are bracing for it quickly. Science and math, social studies, special ed, business and art — these areas over the next 10 years are going to be hard to find. Our philosophy of getting the best and keeping the brightest — you better be ready for it.

Last year, we made a commitment — from being 48th out of 82 school districts (in the state) to 25th, and your pool increases dramatically when you invest in your teachers.”

Merck added that he feels a fund balance of 19 percent is sufficient.

“We’re in a very healthy spot coming into this school year — healthy enough to weather a recession or anything else,” he said. “You don’t want to go much higher because you’re not funding your most valuable resource — your teachers. In this budget, teachers are good, there is a balanced budget and no tax increase. There’s a lot of time and effort that went into this”

Board chairman Judy Edwards and trustees Brian Swords, Henry Wilson, Phillip Bowers and Dr. Herb Cooper voted in favor of the budget, while trustee Alex Saitta voted in opposition. Bowers said he likes how the board is coming together to address needs in the school district.

“A year and a half ago, when I came on the school board to now, it’s incredible what we’ve been able to do,” Bowers said. “We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball.”

In addition to the fact that the budget includes no tax increase, Bowers said he especially likes the way the budget provides a camera on every school bus, something that, in his words, “has been needed for some time.” The trustee said he feels increasing bus driver salaries is long overdue.

“Greenville County bumped theirs up to $17 an hour, while ours is $12 an hour,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we are chipping away.

“This is a very good budget, and I’m glad we are able to work together — or at least the majority of us.”

Saitta said he opposed the budget for a variety of reasons.

“This budget eliminates another 10 classroom teaching positions and raises class sizes,” Saitta said. “I think that will be 65 teaching positions over three years and harmful to academic performance in the long run. There is also too much of the district’s savings being spent — $1.7 million. Given that, the $200,000 contingency is too low and likely will be spent the first four months. If revenue growth stops, the district will be in a financial bind.”

Saitta said the budget also contains a variety of extra pay raises, something he feels, though well intended, is too many at one time.

Wilson said that while he would have preferred that A.R. Lewis Elementary and Holly Springs Elementary remained open rather than merged into existing schools, he likes the commitment to virtual education.

“(The budget has) an inordinate amount of things in it that are good,” Wilson said.

Merck said $150,000 of this year’s budget will be allocated for the development of a new virtual learning academy. The superintendent said district staff will spend the 2016-17 school year creating the program, with the goal of accepting enrollment in 2017-18.

Included in the virtual learning academy are a combination of online and classroom instruction for students, flexibility for students to attend classes either at home or in the traditional classroom, choices for parents regarding which and how many classes the students will attend physically at school and virtually online, and proficiency-based advancement.

The program will be designed to serve middle and high school students but may be expanded to the elementary level in future years.

Assistant superintendent Sharon Huff and director of instructional technology Barbara Nesbitt said the school board’s commitment to virtual education will benefit the district.

“We have talked about students having choice in time, place and pace and talked to Dr. Merck about flexible learning,” Huff said. “We look to extend opportunities at the secondary level and elementary — expanding at all levels.

“We need to be competitive and get out there and do something that will be beneficial to our families and communities. Virtual (learning) is a creative opportunity.”

Nesbitt cited examples of students who had to drop out of traditional school and enter online and how students, including one who helps out on a family farm, could benefit from the more modern method of learning.

“We want to take advantage of school offerings online,” Nesbitt said, adding, “Schools may look very different 25 to 30 years from now.” | (864) 973-6687

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