2006-07 School Board Budget
with Alex Saitta
July 31, 2006
Question: The budget process has ended. Can you give us an update?
Alex: Given the large number of homes being built and added to the tax rolls, revenues are growing strongly. The budget the board approved will spend most of that new money on a big pay raise. Some administrators are getting $4,000 to $5,000 pay raises. The typical teacher is getting a 7.1% pay raise.
Question: The board voted 8 to 1 for the budget, right?
Alex: I was the one who voted against it. I thought the extra money should have gone toward fixing the buildings. Don’t you remember last November? They were urging the people to vote “Yes” to raising taxes, because the money was desperately needed to renovate the schools. It was all about the children. Then when they got some extra money, it was no longer about the children, but a big pay raise instead.
Question: What do you think is going on?
Alex: The school board lost sight of the children on this one, in particular, getting them out of these broken down portable classrooms. Also, they didn’t hear the voters on November 8th when they said, “Fix the school buildings, and do it with the millions we already give you!”
Question: What was your alternative?
Alex: Under my compromise plan, the typical teacher would have been given a reasonable pay raise of 4.6%. The rest of the money would have been set aside for buildings. With that money, plus with the money we have on hand, we could have renovated our five middle schools and the Career Center, without a tax increase. That would have eliminated 46 portables and directly benefited the students.
Question: Your compromise was shot down 8 to 1. What else is going on?
Alex: In last year’s reassessment, the typical tax bill rose 30%. A couple of months ago, we learned the school board overcharged the people any where from $2 to $3 million during the reassessment process. I think that money should be returned.
My four year old will start at Holly Springs Elementary next year. I want the best for our schools, but we need to be fair to those paying the bills.
Question: What is the story on the tax increase that was passed last month?
Alex: On May 22 the budget was passed with no tax increase. In June the tax-swap law was passed in Columbia, and it will put strict limits on how much school boards can raise property taxes in the future. In response the school board called a special meeting on June 29, re-opened the budget, and got in one more tax increase before the law takes effect next year. I was away on vacation. If I had attended the meeting, I would have voted against the tax hike.
Question: It sounds like you oppose all these tax increases.
Alex: I do. We have enough money to give the students what they need, without raising tax rates and breaking the backs of residents. On average school district revenue grows 7% a year, mainly, because all the new homes that are being added to the tax rolls. Student enrollment is growing less than 1% a year. The board should stop raising tax rates and overcharging taxpayers. Instead, it should better manage the $130 million it already receives every year and focus on eliminating waste in the system.
Question: Anything on the buildings front?
Alex: We have access to about $15 million for buildings. The schools in the Pickens and Liberty areas are in the worst shape. For example, Pickens Middle School has as many portable classrooms (13) as the five schools in Clemson combined. I made a motion to spend that $15 million on renovating Pickens Middle and building a second Liberty Elementary. It was defeated by a 6 to 1 vote. The board decided to spend the money on the Career Center. That was my second choice, but really, that $15 million should be spent in Pickens and Liberty instead.
Question: Why is the vocational school near the top of the list?
Alex: More than 20% of high schoolers in Pickens County do not graduate or finish on time. They aren’t dumb, they don't fit in the cookie cutter mold of the conventional text book and classroom education. They have no desire to go to college and sit in a classroom an extra 4 years, and frankly, they all don't need to. Only 25% of careers today require a college degree, but yet most of the resources in the school district are geared toward getting children ready for college. That needs to change.
Question: So renovating the vocational school is a good investment?
Alex: Yes. By expanding and upgrading the vocational school, the aim is to keep potential dropouts more interested in school, get them to graduation, and hopefully on to tech school. If it was up to me, I'd do a joint-venture with Tri-County Tech, and build a facility for both of us to use. One, we'll be in a partership with Tri-County Tech, which is rubbing elbows with business -- the people we ultimately want our students to hook-up with. Two, our vocational students will make an easier transition to Tech School, because it will be in the same building. It is a win-win.
Question: Will it happen?
Alex: I don't know. I called the CEO of Tri-County Tech. He liked my idea. I suggested the idea to the school district and mentioned it at school board meetings. My hope is the administrations of the two schools will run with the idea. There is a tech school tidal wave rising in the upstate, and joining up with Tri-County Tech is the way to get our school district on that wave.
Question: Are you up for election in November?
Alex: No, not until 2008. However, two at-large seats are up for re-election, so you’ll be voting on those. At-large members are elected by voters across the entire county. The current holders of those seats are Ernie Fortner, and the chairman of the board, Shirley Jones. I suspect one will retire, and I hope the people will elect a person with business experience to that position. The board needs more business people who will manage the school board budget like you manage your household budget.
Question: Well, thank you, Alex.
Alex: You are welcome. Does this mean I get a paid subscription to the newspaper?