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Schools: Without stimulus, district will face layoffs

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

Layoffs and furloughs could be around the corner for Georgetown County schools if South Carolina doesn’t get $566 million in federal stimulus funding for education, said Superintendent Randy Dozier.

The district estimates it would lose $2 million out of its $75 million operating budget if Gov. Mark Sanford doesn’t apply for stabilization funds from the federal government by Friday’s deadline.

That $2 million lost is in addition to $2.5 million lost through state budget cuts last year.

Lisa Johnson, the district finance director, issued a caveat on those numbers.

“We started out at $75 million, and we’ve identified some places where we hope we can save but we haven’t made any amendments” since the state cuts came through, she said.

Johnson said another 2 percent cut in education funding was approved by the General Assembly last week. She doesn’t known how much that will hurt the district’s budget or even what it will affect.

“I’ve never tried to build a budget with as much doubt and uncertainty and things changing from one day to the next,” Johnson said.

“Its really just going to be a matter of waiting and finding out what’s going to happen on Friday.”

Dozier said they were close to having a draft budget to present to the school board.

“Now we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and make some additional cuts,” Dozier said. “I don’t know how that’s going to work without significant layoffs.”

Neither Dozier nor Johnson could say what positions could be affected yet, but they’ve both watched the amount of money South Carolina gives to districts on a per-student basis shrink this week as the General Assembly worked on state budget for the coming year.

“When you reduce this money from $2,243 to $1,910, you’re talking about funding that was 1995 levels,” Dozier said. “It’s a fairly significant step backwards.”

Since the base student cost is a factor in the district’s budget formulas, the decrease will have an affect on how much money the district gets in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Less money not only means the possibility of layoffs and furloughs for some of the 1,600 district employees, but could also mean eliminating smaller classes – Dozier used a five-person AP calculus class as an example – and a decrease in remediation and acceleration programs.

Program cuts were just one way the district tried to balance its budget after $2.5 million in cuts this fiscal year but faced with $2 million more in cuts, Johnson said there isn’t much left to eliminate.

“We’ve tried to eliminate what wasn’t necessary,” she said. “There isn’t a lot left.”

Dozier suggested freezing increases as employees advance on the district’s pay scale would save about $1.6 million this year.

The district has already frozen salaries.

“I’m not sure how we would do it other than eliminate positions, do furloughs or reduce contract days,” he said.

“That’s typically what other people are doing.”

Salaries account for the largest share of the district’s operating budget, Johnson said, so cutting jobs would save money; however, she knows cutting positions is hard.

“You’re dealing with employees’ livelihoods. It’s tough,” she said.

School Board Member Teresa Bennani believes politics are to blame.

She said Governor Sanford is “posturing” for 2011 and thinks it’s “quite naive.”

School Board Chairman Jim Dumm agreed.

Gov. Sanford should “stop posturing and run for the presidency next year, not this year on the backs of school children,” he said.

The governor made national headlines last month when he asked President Obama if he could use stimulus money to pay down state debt.

According to Sanford, it would be better to use $700 million of the $2.8 billion coming to the state to pay down debt rather than follow the guidelines Congress listed in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

The $700 million he wants to use would include the $566 million for K-12 education.

He said paying down debt would free up more than $162 million from debt service in the first two years and save about $125 million in interest payments over the next 13 years.

“It’s kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul as far as taking care of next year’s budget is concerned,” Dumm said.

Anticipating Sanford’s response to the stimulus, Sixth District Rep. James Clyburn added a provision in the stimulus package that would give state legislatures the power to accept money if governors will not, but conflict over the constitutionality of Clyburn’s addition is holding up the legislature.

Clyburn called the conflict over constitutionality “a red herring.”

He urged the South Carolina legislature to build a budget around the stabilization money, but S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, the Congressional Research Service and the Office of Budget Management director Peter Orzag have all questioned its constitutionality.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who did not vote for the stimulus package, said the governor should take it because South Carolinians will have to pay the money back.

“We can refuse to accept it, but we cannot refuse to pay it back,” Graham said. “Time is of the essence and I am hopeful the governor and legislature can find a compromise which addresses the needs of both current and future generations of South Carolinians.”

In Georgetown County, school officials just want to get their budget completed.

Today, Dumm and Johnson will travel to Columbia to speak with other district superintendents at the superintendents’ round table. Dozier said discussion topics are the state budget, stimulus spending and district budgets.

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