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Education: District feels generous at start of budget season

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Georgetown County School District added $2.2 million to its reserves last year and is in a generous mood as it starts work on a new budget.

The district will consider waiving the rent it charges some nonprofits for space at the Beck Administration Center and could end up sharing the cost for one, Healthy Learners, which helps provide medical and dental care to students.

The district is also working on a plan to expand full-day pre-kindergarten classes, Superintendent Randy Dozier said, and the school board this week approved $10,000 to create an after-school program in the county’s four middle schools that will help prepare students for college.

The mood is the polar opposite of the 2011 budget season that began with a presentation of ways the district could cut programs, shift funds from areas such as classroom supplies and consolidate some smaller schools.

The district raised its reserve fund to $10.1 million in the year that ended June 30, according to an audit released this week. It took in $1.9 million more than it budgeted for operations, with $1 million coming from the state. It spent $170,000 less than it budgeted.

“That’s quite a stride to increase the bottom line,” said Linda Kelly, a CPA with McGregor & Co. of Columbia that worked on the audit.

The state legislature increased per-pupil funding last year and overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of the measure. Even with the increase, the county received $750,000 less from the state in the fiscal year 2011 than it did in 2010. Local revenue was down $186,000 in the same period.

The district cut spending on operations by $3.3 million from 2010 to 2011.

While the audit presented a rosy view of the district’s finances, Board Member Teresa Bennani said “a lot of charities are really struggling for funding in these economic times.” She suggested the district waive the $4,800 lease for Healthy Learners that was up for approval.

The district could do the same for others in the Beck Center “if they truly are collaborative and we have space available,” she said.

Dozier said he had the same idea, but added that Healthy Learners may need more help from the district because its grant funding runs out this year.

Georgetown Hospital System is also looking at funds for the program and Dozier said, he expects to budget “a significant amount” for Healthy Learners.

In an operations budget of about $68 million, the nonprofit’s budget “is kind of miniscule. What they give back is a lot.”

“I never thought I would be in the health care business,” Dozier added.

Bennani, who chairs the board’s pre-school committee, also asked about adding all-day classes this year. While the district offers half-day classes, many working families opt for private pre-school because they need full-day programs. “The number in private programs far exceed what we’re serving,” Dozier said.

The district is looking at partnerships with some private providers and has had discussions with the Coastal Montessori Charter School, which has talked about creating a pre-school program separate from the charter school that will open in the fall for grades one through six.

“I’m optimistic we can add some classes,” Dozier said.

School Board Chairman Jim Dumm pointed out that the governor’s proposed budget doesn’t include any funds for pre-school initiatives. “This is the time when we need to pay attention to what’s going on in Columbia,” he said.

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