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Column: Legislature needs to obey own law

Posted: April 19, 2018 3:05 p.m.
Updated: April 20, 2018 1:00 a.m.

On today’s front page, I have an article looking back at the Kershaw County school board’s April 10 meeting and a presentation on the Kershaw County School District’s (KCSD) proposed 2018-19 budget.

The story’s hook, if you will, is reflected in the headline: “KCSD budget tweaks come with criticism of lawmakers; Legislature continues to thwart own law on school funding, says Wilson.”

During the presentation, KCSD Chief Financial Officer Donnie Wilson pointed out that while the senate’s version of the budget includes a $60 increase to the base student cost to $2,485, it is still $533 per student short of where it is supposed to be.

School funding is complicated to explain, but let’s see if I can do it.

Remember Act 388 in 2006? It changed the primary source of school funding from owner-occupied homes to 1 percent additional state sales tax. The sales tax is collected by the state and placed in the Homestead Exemption Fund. Those funds are then distributed to school districts through the S.C. Education Finance Act (EFA) and Education Improvement Act.

It’s the EFA funds that are important here. EFA funds to school districts are distributed based on the base student cost formula. According to the EFA, adopted in 1977, base student cost is defined as “the funding level necessary for providing a minimum foundation program.” In other words, funding enough to meet what’s required to educate an average student.

The formula, if I’m reading things correctly, uses “pupil classification weightings” for kindergartener, primary/elementary, middle and high school students; various types of special needs students; career and technology training; early childhood programs; academic assistance; and adult education.

Those weightings are then used in a calculation involving average daily memberships in each classification, which are then added together to come up with a district’s “total weighted pupil units.” That is then multiplied by the base student cost figure the General Assembly determines.

Even after finding that information, I’m still not sure how this works exactly.

The point is, however it works, it is the General Assembly’s own legal requirement to follow the formula and fund districts out of the EFA program accordingly.

However, as Wilson pointed out April 10, the legislature has, year after year, passed special provisos exempting it from obeying its own law. I traded some emails with him Wednesday. Wilson estimates that during the 41 years since the legislature came up with the base student cost formula, it has only fully funded at the formula amount 10 times.

If the S.C. Senate followed the strict interpretation of the formula, the base student cost for the coming school year would be $3,018 by putting back in the missing $533.

During a March 27 school board meeting, KCSD Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan projected 2018-19 enrollment at 10,620.

By my calculation, using the missing $533, the state will be short-changing the Kershaw County School District by $5.66 million for the coming school year.

On April 10, Morgan and Wilson said that during the past nine years, the General Assembly’s provisos have cost the district about $80 million, just a little under the district’s proposed budget of $87 million.

That’s just incredible to me. The missing $5.66 million for next year (assuming the senate version of the budget is the one both houses adopt) could be used for so many things that the district can’t fund right now. Imagine what the district could have done with an additional $80 million during the last nine years!

Two things to keep in mind, though:

1) Nine years ago was 2007, just before the “Great Recession.” And, as several Kershaw County Council members pointed out to us for our big look at economic development, South Carolina seems to takes longer to climb out of economic trouble than other states. Still, this is no excuse for lawmakers to defy their own law. As Wilson put it, either get back to following the formula or throw it out and start over.

2) We’re talking about money for operations, not construction. Base student cost has nothing to do with building new facilities or sprucing up old ones. So, no one needs to be barking about how getting full base student cost funds could have negated the need for the 2016 bond referendum for construction.

Finally, I’m not trying to paint the legislature with a broad brush. Insofar as I know, neither State Sen. Vincent Sheheen nor State Rep. Laurie Funderburk have ever voted in favor of the provisos exempting the General Assembly from fully funding base student cost.

I suspect that’s because they know what we know: Education is too important not to fund at the highest levels possible ... and that disobeying your own law is about as unethical as you can get, even after 41 years.

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