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I know I keep talking about this, but...

Posted: September 22, 2011 8:41 a.m.
Updated: September 26, 2011 5:00 a.m.

I am very grateful to the Chronicle-Independent for giving me an opportunity each month to discuss education in our community and beyond. One of the topics I feel compelled to keep talking about is how our state funds K-12 education. As I’ve said on several other occasions in this space, it’s an understatement to say that the way our state funds K-12 education is dysfunctional, complicated, disorganized, ineffective and contradictory, and that’s on a good day. When I think about this system, imagery involving duct tape and baling wire comes to mind. 

Our state’s over-reliance on the sales tax to fund education, based on the ill-conceived Act 388, has worsened the impact of the economic downturn. This has resulted in a $12 million reduction in our district’s budget since 2007-08 and a $750 million reduction statewide. (This is why class sizes are larger and there are fewer media assistants, health room assistants and clerical staff, among other cuts that have had to be made.) The recent need for the state to hastily pump another $100 million into K-12 special education funding or lose its federal funding for this area underscores the magnitude of the problem. The state of South Carolina is simply not meeting its obligations for K-12 education. We need to stop kidding ourselves about this. 

Fixing this problem is daunting. Any solution will have to be crafted within the limitations of Act 388, which eliminated the use of property taxes on primary residences for school operations and is politically untouchable. Such a solution will also have to cut through the current mishmash of exemptions, special legislation, local legislation, year-to-year provisos and regional politics that impact K-12 funding. I can assure you that the current system, while a disaster for school districts, works to the advantage of a number of extremely well-funded special interest groups that will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo. 

In spite of these challenges, a group of school finance professionals and other fiscal experts from across the state came together about a year ago to develop a solution. This group -- which includes our district’s Chief Financial Officer, Donnie Wilson -- has attempted to look at the whole state, the diversity of its needs and economic conditions and the need for a funding formula that provides quality and equity for all students, regardless of where they live or the circumstances of their community. This group also approached the problem with the understanding that any revised formula needs to help foster economic growth, which the current methodology does not do in any way shape or form. 

So what does the plan developed by the group look like? The plan’s main elements include the following:

• Establishes a statewide millage rate of 100 mills. Why is this important? Because of the varied economic conditions that exist across our state, millage rates across South Carolina range from 90 to 300 mills, an amazing spread when you think about it. This situation leads to much of the disparity in school funding that now exists from locality to locality.

• Establishes a statewide Base Student Funding level as opposed to current Base Student Cost methodology. The recommended level of $5,204 can be accomplished by consolidating the 74 different revenue streams from the state along with local revenue. The current Base Student Cost is funded at $1,876, which is $702 less than it was in 2007-08 and less than half of the projected “real” cost of $3,000 estimated by the Board of Economic Advisors. A statewide benchmark in terms of base funding is critical to promoting equity. 

• Allows school districts to exceed the Base Student Funding level if its community so desires based on its 8 percent borrowing authority or through a referendum. This provision would allow local communities freedom to make their own choices about program improvements and enhancements.

• Implements recommendations of the Tax Realignment Commission (TRAC). The commission’s recommendations eliminate many of the loopholes and exemptions that now exist. These exemptions reduce potential state revenue by approximately $500 million per year. TRAC did a two-year study that involved both business and political leaders in our state. To this point, none of the commission’s recommendations have been considered by the General Assembly. 

• Reduces taxes to businesses by $500 million. The advantages to this in terms of economic growth and job creation are obvious.

It’s been puzzling and frustrating at the same time to see that there is a problem, see how it’s hurting kids and communities and know that there is a viable solution. The 2012 General Assembly will have the opportunity to act on legislation that would make the changes I have outlined here. I believe this plan will be supported by the business community because it eases its tax burden and would foster economic expansion and job creation. The most compelling reason I can see to make this change is that it would end the yearly uncertainty about K-12 funding; it would provide predictability. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing you’ve always done and expecting different results. Now is the time to end the insanity, so to speak.

 I’m always pleased to talk with community members 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 folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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