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Tough decisions
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Now that the elections are over, the real work begins. The election season is generally a time when rhetoric trumps reality. Now, reality takes center stage. In a nutshell, here’s the reality.  The state budget has shrunk by over $2.5 billion over the past two years. State support for K-12 education has shrunk by almost $730 million during this period.  (There are folks, bless their hearts, who have been using creative math to make the case that K-12 funding has actually increased. If only it were so.) Because federal stimulus/stabilization funding will drop off at the end of the current fiscal year, the South Carolina General Assembly will need to plug a $1 billion shortfall, which will in one way or the other impact not only K-12 education, but also higher education, public safety and every other state-supported public service. For our school district, the loss of stimulus/stabilization funds means a loss of another $2.9 million in addition to the $12 million that has already been lost over the past two years. This goes beyond simple “belt-tightening.”

As I have discussed in previous columns and in a variety of other settings, the unbalanced tax structure in our state has worsened the impact of the national economic downturn. Act 388, which shifted the funding for K-12 education from the relatively stable property tax to the much more volatile sales tax, helped to make a bad situation much worse. Further, a variety of exemptions to the sales tax have reduced potential state sales tax revenue in excess of $2 billion. While the legislatively-established TRAC (Tax Realignment Commission) has developed a set of recommendations to address some of the exemptions, it was specifically prohibited from considering Act 388. It also appears that many legislators favor a “revenue neutral” approach to any tax reform. In other words, if any exemptions are eliminated, an offsetting sales tax decrease would be enacted. 

Assuming no change in the revenue scenario, the General Assembly will undoubtedly consider significant structural changes to reduce the state’s financial support for K-12 education. These will very likely include reducing the school year from 180 days to 170 days, reducing graduation requirements so that some high school course offerings can be eliminated and reducing funding for the $7,500 stipend currently paid by the state for National Board certification. Local school boards across the state will be forced to consider increases in class sizes, reduction or elimination of non-mandated programs and scaling back to mandated minimums of other programs. While no school board in this state wants to undertake these measures, the continued loss of state revenue will leave limited choices.

I was told by a well-known legislator (not from our delegation) last year that he didn’t think citizens were all that upset by the cuts that were being made to K-12 education because he rarely heard from citizens about these cuts. While I can assure you that the School Board and I will do everything possible to advocate for education at the General Assembly, I can also say with no hesitation that the voices that must be heard are from parents and teachers.  Unfortunately, I think most of the public’s disagreement about budget cuts has been directed to local school boards rather the General Assembly, which actually makes the decisions that drive what local school boards have to do.

The time for the community to be involved is well before a budget is passed in May. In January, our district will schedule a series of informational meetings about the budget throughout the county so that citizens and staff can have the information necessary to be involved. It will be too late next August to ask why class sizes are higher, why programs have been scaled back or eliminated, or why the school year is shorter. There are alternatives to simply continuing to cut.  But these alternatives won’t get much traction at the General Assembly unless the public and educators advocate for them. 

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about this topic or anything else concerning our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my e-mail 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.