In November, voters rejected two referenda put on the ballot by the Kershaw County School District (KCSD) to replace or repair aging schools and other facilities. Now, the district must find ways to maintain those facilities without a $130 million bond or 1 percent sales tax it planned to use to pay for the bond.
During its Jan. 20 meeting, the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees received a report on potential impacts to the district’s 2015-16 budget. One of those impacts is facility maintenance.
KCSD Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan told trustees he directed Executive Director for Operations Billy Smith to ensure money is set aside for emergency repairs and health- and safety-related maintenance. Morgan said these types of issues would be dealt with immediately. Non-essential, cosmetic work will take a back seat to allow for maximum flexibility in the budget for health, safety and emergency work.
“If it’s ‘elective surgery,’ like (having) a classroom painted, we’re not going to do that right now,” he said. “How do we make sure we have money in the budget to deal with HVAC systems that are old? We have to fix those, and plumbing or whatever.”
Morgan said Smith informed him Doby’s Mill and Pine Tree Hill elementary and Leslie M. Stover Middle schools -- among the district’s newer schools -- have HVAC systems nearing the time where they could start breaking down on a regular basis.
In a way, Morgan’s remarks on facility maintenance served as a reply to comments made during the meeting’s public forum time by Vic Dabney, a member of Citizens Against New Taxes, a group which opposed the bond and penny sales tax referenda ballot issues.
Dabney said the issue of taxing citizens in some way for such repairs keeps coming up despite the referenda’s defeat. He claimed he recently heard of plans to bring the penny sales tax back to voters.
“I heard that, right after the election, the superintendent told principals that, from now on, if something breaks or something doesn’t work right, don’t even report it ‘because we’re not going fix it,’” Dabney said. “This is what was told to me: ‘We’re going to make it so bad that the next time around they’re going to have to vote for the tax increase.’ They’re going to make it so bad on the children … on these people in these outlying schools, they will vote next time for a tax increase.”
In an email Thursday morning, Morgan said 72 separate maintenance work orders have been completed at Mt. Pisgah, Baron DeKalb and Bethune elementary schools since Nov. 5. Those three schools were slated to be consolidated to a proposed new facility near North Central middle and high schools as part of the bond referendum.
Facility maintenance is one of six key budget impact factors, Morgan said. Among the others are state and local revenue. Morgan said the six-month budget development process leads right up to when the S.C. General Assembly passes its budget.
“We’ve got a projection from the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors in November saying there’s $300 million more in state revenue. (However,) state revenue … is going to be impacted not only by available revenue but by what the General Assembly decides to do with, for example, the Abbeville case,” Morgan said, referring to the S.C. Supreme Court’s decision on a 20-year-old state education funding equity suit.
In a 3-2 decision in November, the Court ruled South Carolina failed to provide “minimally adequate” education in the state’s poorest districts. Chief Justice Jean H. Toal wrote in the ruling the current funding system is a “fractured formula,” and the Court ordered both school districts and legislators to develop remedies to deal with the “constitutional violation.”
“There’ll be legislation presented shortly … that would have some impact, but I don’t know if there’s going to be a lot of impact next year,” Morgan said.
(For more on the Abbeville case, see Morgan’s monthly column.)
Moving on to local funding, he said it has been suggested the board and county council discuss ways of getting back to what he called a “predictable county funding formula” in 2008. Before the economic downturn, Morgan said, state law existed requiring a “minimum local effort” on the county’s part tied to enrollment increases and the consumer price index.
“Well, the General Assembly wrote that out of the law, basically through provisos and, ever since then, we really haven’t had any kind of structure … with the county,” Morgan said. “There’s been times when we’ve gotten millage for specific purposes, but I think that may be a discussion you all might want to have with county council moving forward.”
Another possible impact on next school year’s budget is enrollment, with an estimated rise of 67 students. Morgan said the district always tries to estimate on the “low end of reasonable” so it does not over estimate the number of teachers to hire.
He also said increases in fixed costs will likely impact the 2015-16 budget with expected increases in utilities, property and casualty insurance, worker’s compensation, and employer-paid health and retirement benefits.
“One of the things we’re going to have to do is project what we think they are in a realistic way. It doesn’t do us any good to have the budget under projected and then find out later we were wrong,” Morgan said.
He also wants to see if there is a way to restore salary levels to compensate for two years where salaries were frozen in order to keep costs down.
“I think that, especially for teachers and certified staff -- everyone is hurt on competitiveness and I think that’s something we’re going to have to talk about. What I’m worried about is, if we don’t start making some incremental movements to kind of catch up for those two years, several years down the road it will be much more difficult to get us back up to a reasonable place in terms of being competitive,” he said.
Morgan also wants to see a restoration of line items cut during the downturn, such as hiring assistants, replacing library books and paying for music instrument replacement.
The preliminary budget should be presented to the board by March 17.