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Paying for enrollment growth

Posted: March 20, 2017 4:27 p.m.
Updated: March 21, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Kershaw County is growing, to be sure.  The County’s “Vision 2030” Plan, a very thorough and visionary document, contains a projection that the population of Kershaw County will increase to 72,000 people by 13 years from now.  Most of this growth is expected to occur along the I-20 corridor between Elgin and Cassatt, although there is also indication of unforeseen growth in the North Central area.

The school district is already seeing the evidence of this growth trend.   There has been an increase of about 350 students over the past four years.  It is normal to see a decline in enrollment as the school year progresses, but we’re not seeing that decline this year.  The district is projected to grow at least 100 more students next school year, which I believe will end being more.

Growth is a huge financial challenge. Growth generates additional costs for teachers, classrooms and programs -- you name it. Residential growth in any state, but most especially South Carolina, does not pay for itself in terms of schools or anything else for that matter.  Because primary residences are not taxed for school operations in South Carolina as a result of Act 388, there is no structured way to finance increases in student population without increasing taxes on local businesses.  I’ve ranted time and again over the past several years about this foolish state of affairs, but Act 388 is the third rail of South Carolina politics, and we’re stuck with it.  Politicians know it’s not an effective method for funding education, but don’t have the stomach to fix it.  

That said, as I was working on a presentation for last month’s Kershaw County Council retreat, I came across some interesting data concerning our enrollment growth that I think is worth sharing.  The needs of additional students go well beyond just the typical needs of a regular classroom, as illustrated by the following:

• We have 207 more ESOL (students whose first language is not English) since 2008.  This is more than a 100 percent increase.  What is particularly difficult about this is that after one year, these students are required to take all of our state tests.  I’d like to have the genius in Washington, D.C., who thought this up to get dropped in another country tomorrow and be required to take tests there after a year.  This isn’t even sensible.

• We have enrolled 190 more special education students over the past two years.  Although the new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos thinks that serving special education students is a state prerogative, doing so is actually required under federal law.  Hopefully, somebody has filled her in since she took office.  Though special education is a federal mandate, school districts only receive about 16 percent of the costs from the federal government.  The rest comes from state and local sources.  We spent between $10-11 million on special education last year.  

• Since 2011, 37 more students falling on the autism spectrum are being served in our schools.  I need to emphasize that these students can be very successful in a regular classroom setting, but they sometimes require additional support systems.

• Since 2010, our district has enrolled 50 more students with health impairments.  These students typically need nursing, occupational therapy and physical therapy services.

• Since 2010, our district is serving 50 more children with developmental delays in preschool classes.  Many of these students require both academic and therapy services.

• Since 2007, the number of economically disadvantaged students in our district has increased by 10 percent.  The state provides weighted per-pupil funding for these students and it’s getting expensive.  Not surprisingly, the state is trying to adopt a poverty formula that would lowball the number of economically disadvantaged students for whom we receive the additional weighted funding.  I can tell you for a fact that our number of economically disadvantaged students is not decreasing, in spite of the state plan to jimmy the numbers.  

So what’s my point?  Actually, my point is threefold.  First, the costs of enrollment growth go far beyond what one would expect to see in the typical classroom.  Many of the students coming through our doors require additional services that just plain cost more.  

Second, in our community, we have no specific plan or structured way to fund the costs related to growth.  Before the economic downturn, Kershaw County had a very good revenue structure in place to fund growth.  However, when the General Assembly decided to eliminate the requirement for localities to meet what is called “minimum local effort,” Kershaw County Council decided to suspend the revenue structure.  Hence, funding growth in an organized way in Kershaw County isn’t happening.  The school board has no say about residential growth.  This is strictly a local government function.  Local government needs to help with funding growth in a reasonable and predictable way.  

Third, the state needs to fund its legal requirement for K-12 education.  The General Assembly’s failure to do so has cost Kershaw County almost $70 million since 2008, even as our enrollment and the needs of our student population have grown.  I find it especially distressing, although not that surprising, that the South Carolina Department of Education is trying to figure out how not to fund the actual number of economically disadvantaged students we serve by rigging the poverty formula.  

Growth has costs that we need to acknowledge and find ways to address versus burying our heads in the sand and hoping this problem will solve itself.  Few problems do.  

I’m always pleased to talk with folks about our schools.  My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net.  Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district website.  I also invite community members to read my “blog,” which can also be reached through a link on the homepage of the district website.  In addition, I do a podcast after each School Board meeting summarizing the meeting.  This podcast can also be accessed through a link on the district homepage.

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