I was extremely pleased earlier this year to be invited with school board Chairman Ron Blackmon to participate in the Kershaw County Council planning retreat. It was a very informative experience for both of us. At the retreat, I was asked to outline what I see as the school district’s most critical challenges. I’ve since been asked by several other groups to do the same presentation, so I thought what I had to say might be of interest.
Attracting and retaining quality employees
A strong workforce is essential if our district is to continue its success in educating students. This is especially important for teachers and building administrators. The research is clear: quality instructional staff at the school level, including leadership, is a tremendously important factor in student learning.
In 2008, the district had made great strides in terms of salaries to attract and retain quality educators. (I’m told that not that long ago, our teacher salaries were among the highest in the state.) Because of the deep cuts which had to be made during the economic downturn, we have lost a tremendous amount of ground and are not competitive with the districts with which we compete for people, not just in the Midlands but Lancaster County also. This lack of competitiveness is also hurting us in terms of attracting coaches for our athletic programs and other extracurricular activities. In response, the school board has made compensation its top priority for the Fiscal Year 2105-16 budget. However, I believe additional local funding will be needed to meet this priority in a meaningful way.
Restoring cuts made during the downturn
Since 2008, more than $30 million in total cuts have been made to our budget. Many of these cuts have still not been restored, including 50 teaching and assistant positions, reductions to library collections and supplies, and cuts to extracurricular and arts programs, among a number of other areas. If not for fundraising by PTOs, PTAs and booster clubs, I’m not sure how we would have made it. That being said, fundraising for normal operating expenses is not a good long-term solution.
The referendum held this past November did not pass, but it didn’t make the problems go away. We still have a lot of serious issues in our older facilities. (As an aside, I had a community member tell me he lives in a 50-year-old house, and it’s just fine. I understand his point, but I don’t think several hundred children come through his house 180 days a year.) Some of our more recently built schools like Stover, Pine Tree Hill and Doby’s Mill will soon need HVAC replacement and other work.
A few weeks ago, the school board voted to spend the next nine months or so developing a new referendum proposal. In the meantime, the board is going to have to figure out how to keep our facilities operational without taking resources from classrooms. (I would point out that our budget is about 85 percent people who do their work in schools.) Use of fund balance and savings generated through refinancing of our current debt will help, but won’t meet all the needs by any stretch of the imagination.
Predictable local revenue
From a local funding standpoint, the school district is “fiscally dependent,” which means any increase in operating millage must be approved by county council. I find this a curious arrangement since council has no constitutional authority over schools. Our local legislative delegation would have to pass legislation to change this situation.
That being said, prior to the economic downturn, there was a sensible revenue agreement in place with county council based on enrollment growth and inflation. The formula complied with a state law mandating a minimum level of local effort for funding schools. After the downturn, the General Assembly eliminated this requirement and council chose not to continue with the revenue agreement given no legal requirement to do so.
Council has chosen to provide funding in some years for specific areas designated by council, for which we are grateful. However, there is no mechanism in place to address even enrollment growth, which requires hiring of teachers at the very least. This does not seem reasonable on its face given enrollment growth is often a function of development approved by council or through the county’s Comprehensive Plan. I hope a sensible funding formula can be agreed to by council and the school board in the foreseeable future.
The referendum this past November had included funding to relocate ATEC to a Joint Economic Development Campus which would have included Central Carolina Technical College and Kershaw County Economic Development Office. This would have been a tremendous step in terms of attracting the kind of economic development Kershaw County needs to increase its tax base to support community needs for education, public safety, recreation, roads and infrastructure and human services.
Moving forward, it is imperative the district place increased focus on workforce development through programs at ATEC at the existing facility, school-based programs like robotics, and through partnerships with the business community. I am excited a mechatronics program will be implemented at ATEC next year. In this program, students will learn to diagnose, repair, install and service electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic and electromechanical systems. Individuals with these skills are in great demand in the manufacturing sector. These kinds of workforce development programs are essential to economic development in Kershaw County.
Outperforming our resources
I am extremely proud of the fact, in spite of the fiscal challenges of the past several years, our district has continued its strong academic performance. As I showed the board recently, our academic performance within the region is in the top third even though our funding is in the bottom third. I believe we have consistently demonstrated exemplary stewardship of public resources. I hope county leaders, legislative leaders, the business community and the larger community will work with the school board to provide the resources necessary address the challenges I have described.