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Schools: Cuts leave few areas off limits

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Brenda Perkins spoke for more than a dozen parents of students at Browns Ferry Elementary when she asked the Georgetown County School Board this week not to close the school. “It’s not like our school is a failing school,” she said.

But board members say they aren’t ruling out any possible cuts as the district prepares for a $3.5 million budget shortfall, a figure that Superintendent Randy Dozier says is only an estimate. The district finance office is still calculating the savings from a range of potential cuts to programs, supplies and after-school activities.

The two-page list of cuts drafted last month by a committee of school district staff and principals includes combining Plantersville and Browns Ferry schools and moving students to Carvers Bay Middle, where grades seven and eight will shift to the high school.

Bethany Giles-Burgess, principal at Browns Ferry, said she was not asking for additional funds for the school budget. “We have to look to maximize existing resources,” she told the board.

While board members were sympathetic, they are willing to consider any steps to balance the district’s budget this year.

“I don’t think we can afford to have any sacred cows,” Board Member Teresa Bennani said.

“There are lots of areas that have kind of been off limits.”

That includes employees who retire, but continue to work under a state program that allows them to defer retirement benefits for up to five years, she said.

And it includes closing schools where the cost per pupil is nearly twice that of other schools, Bennani said.

“I would like to see the cost savings associated with those suggestions,” she said.

Browns Ferry has 182 students and the district spent $13,004 on each one, according to the most recent school report card from the state Department of Education.

Plantersville has 136 students and spends $13,355 on each one. For similar schools in the state, spending is $8,600 to $8,700 a year per pupil.

Board Member Arthur Lance was principal at Plantersville Elementary for 14 years. He said he wants to go beyond school consolidation and reconsider the district’s attendance zones.

“Someone has to look at it,” Lance said, drawing murmurs of support from the Browns Ferry parents. “It’s a tough pill politically.”

The district was placed under a court order to desegregate in 1970. That order set attendance zones, which were reaffirmed in a 1997 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

“It’s a lot more complicated than people think,” Lance said.

There was a push by the district to end the order in 2007 following a Supreme Court decision that said it was unconstitutional to assign students to schools by race.

The 1970 court order required Georgetown County schools to reflect the county’s racial mix, plus or minus 10 percent, for students and teachers. The consent order allowed schools where all or most of the students were black, but required the district to provide facilities and programs that were unsurpassed in the county. And the teacher ratios still had to follow the county’s racial mix.

“It’s fairly limiting to the district,” Dozier said.

That’s been particularly true since the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, set annual progress standards and allows students to transfer from schools that fail to show progress.

The last Justice Department review of the consent decree found “we were a little weak on providing transportation,” Dozier said. “We now run buses all over the county.”

Any school closings or consolidations would require Justice Department approval.

How much the district would save through consolidation isn’t certain. Just closing Plantersville, which is one option on the table, would save $350,000 to $400,000, Dozier said.

Bennani would like the board to have “a true work session,” where members gather around a table with the financial data.

School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said they could do that when they meet March 15.

“I wish I could say it’s getting easier or better,” Dozier said. “We’re still a year or two away.”

He said the district has already cut programs, such as a Saturday school for remedial students and foreign language in elementary and middle schools.

He said he has received good feedback from teachers on the list of cuts. Most people seem willing to make short-term cuts.

“Nobody should panic,” Lance said. “Everything is on the table.”

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