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Schools: Budget challenges remain as demands grow
By Charles Swenson
A centerpiece of Gov. Nikki Haley’s education budget will provide reading coaches to the state’s elementary schools. It’s a measure that will help the Georgetown County School District’s goal of cutting by half the number of students who don’t score “proficient” on the state’s reading test.
But the budget working its way through the legislature only funds a portion of the coaching positions. Georgetown County Superintendent Randy Dozier estimates it will cost more than $300,000 to add the coaches. The district expects to get an extra $250,000 from the state next year.
“The hard times aren’t over,” Dozier told the school board this week.
The district will see costs rise by $800,000 to provide scheduled increases in employee pay and Dozier expects health care costs to rise another $400,000 to $500,000. That’s nearly 2 percent of the district’s $76.9 million operating budget.
The district employees went without pay increases in 2010 and 2011 as the Great Recession cut state revenues. “I don’t want to fall any further behind,” Dozier said.
He will present a draft budget to the school board next month. It isn’t likely to include a property tax increase, which would fall on owners of commercial property and second homes. “I don’t know if it’s the right time for that,” Dozier said. “It’s going to be a real challenge to meet these demands.”
The district is near the midpoint of its five-year strategic plan. The reading coaches will affect the district’s proficiency goals. The plan calls for 90 percent of third-graders to meet or exceed state standards in reading by 2017. Last year, 81 percent met that goal. For fourth-graders, the goal is 87 percent by 2017. Last year’s number was 78 percent. Only fifth-graders are on track. Their average scores exceeded the annual target last year after taking a 10-point jump to 83 percent from 73 percent in 2012.
School Board Member Richard Kerr is concerned that the district doesn’t have the money to fund all the steps in the strategic plan, which call for raising performance in all grades. “If we’re short, then the plan is short,” Kerr said.
School Board Chairman Jim Dumm was disappointed to learn the reading coaches will come with a price tag for the district. “The talk of new money for education is a newspaper headline,” he said.
“The concept is great,” Dozier said.
Many of the programs in the strategic plan designate the cost and source of funding, but Dozier said “we had to be creative” with some. The annual update to the plan calls for an expansion of all-day pre-kindergarten. The district went from half-day to full-day programs at all its elementary schools last year, but the move was funded by the state and targeted children from low-income families. The state funds were awarded to the district because over 75 percent of its children come from low-income families.
The strategic plan doesn’t show how the district would fund an expansion of the pre-K program to other students or how it would pay for the current program if the state doesn’t continue funding.
The 2017 goals “are optimistic based on what we’re going to spend,” Kerr said.
Diane Wingate, the district’s strategic plan coordinator, also noted that the goals are based on the current standardized tests. Those are due to change next year when the state completes implementation of the Common Core standards. But there is a move in the legislature to drop the Common Core, which was developed by a consortium of states but which conservatives see as a federal takeover of education.
This week, the state education superintendent, Mick Zais, said he was pulling out of the consortium that created new tests aligned with the Common Core standards. “I want to have a high quality assessment that meets the specific needs of South Carolina, at a competitive price,” Zais said in a letter to the chairman of the state Board of Education. “If we continue to focus only on Smarter Balanced, we lose any opportunity to consider alternatives.”
Dozier pointed out the state spends $26 million a year on testing. “I think we test way too much,” he said, adding that he would like to see some of that money spent in the classroom.