I want to talk about one of the primary goals of the school board, its achievement, and what it will mean to employees, parents and students this year.
When you look at the past 5 years, there have been 3 issues that have been so consuming they have taken the school board and the administration’s focus off our primary purpose of educating students.
The goal has been to deal with these issues head-on, solve them and put them behind us, so we could turn our focus back 100% to educating students.
1) Dr. D’Andrea had a lot of great ideas. She, as much as anyone, deserves credit for all these new buildings. The issue there was, too much change, too fast, and to the point where the focus often was shifted away from educating students to implementing and dealing with change.
At the end of the D’Andrea term morale was at its low point in my opinion. The primary reason was the constant change, the fear employees had if they resisted the change and what I think was an attempt to wipeout the existing management structure.
When D’Andrea left, the school board was leaning toward bringing in an outsider to be interim Superintendent. Oscar Thorsland and I pushed for Dr. Stewart. Employees trusted him to be fair. Not to dictate, but to communicate with all parts of the system before a change was made. He also valued the loyalty of employees who put their years in. Stewart interviewed and was hired by the board.
Bringing in Stewart, elevated Dr. Hunt’s status and Hunt was selected by the board. The board hiring Stewart and then Hunt was a critical decision and right on the money. Stewart and Hunt helped put the issues from the D’Andrea years behind us, so employees could once again focus on educating students. Problem 1 solved.
2) The second issue that took our eye off the education ball was the massive building program. Frankly, it overwhelmed the board and the district for the first two years.
When Stewart came in he uncovered from 2006 to 2008, on paper the cost of the program rose from $315 to $450 million. And we only had $365 million. Also, the plan fell about 1 year behind schedule.
Stewart and Hunt hired a new buildings director. This was a second critical decision. Folkman and his staff saved the building program and put it back on track. Now with each passing month, more of the building program is moving to our rear view mirror, so we can shift our focus back to our primary purpose of educating students. Problem 2 solved.
3) Finally, the economic crisis hit. Revenue fell substantially and initially there was a lot of denial from Washington all the way down to the school board — this is a short-term economic turn down, was the prevailing view. As a result, a lot of 1 year fixes were implemented. This contributed to annual budget deficits and what I call the annual “cycle of worry”.
For the past four years, when the initial budget projection came out, invariably the district would be facing a deficit from $2 to $4 million. This set-off a period of worry from October to the final passage of the budget in June. When you are worried about your job, naturally that is going to derail your focus.
Frankly, the majority of the board got tired of worrying about next year’s budget deficit, and realized employees were tired of worrying about losing their jobs and more staff. As a result, we took 3 steps to balance the budget not only this year, but next year and hopefully the year after.
First, we focused on long-term non-classroom cuts (as opposed to things like furloughs) to balance the budget not only this year, but next year too. For example, the initial proposal by the school district to cut the $3 million budget included eliminating 22 more teaching positions and only 1 position in the district office.
Edwards, Trotter, Gillespie and I insisted the cuts come from non-classroom areas. In the end 9 positions were cut in the district office and 6 in principals offices, so no teaching positions were eliminated. Due to various reasons, we have been able to add 6.5 teaching positions this year.
Second, despite the requests from local towns for us to give them our old buildings, we refused and said, “If you want this building, you’ll have to pay for it.” Granted they were sold to the county and local towns for about salvage value, we were not in a position to give them away. We have a handshake, contract or a closing thus far on about $600,000 in sales. One deal seems to have fallen through.
Finally, there are political give-aways called TIF’s, where past school boards gave away school district revenue to local towns in order to curry favor with them. This board is ending that practice. We denied TIF’s to Pickens and Easley. The board denied Central’s request to renew their TIF. That will bring back $150,000 in revenue to the district. Liberty’s $40,000 TIF ends soon as well. The Clemson TIF ends in 2017 and the Easley TIF in 2018.
Because of these steps, steps taken by the administration and the firming economy the budget is balanced this year and next year. Let's hope the board and leadership can keep it that way. There is still some who want to overspend. Likely, the 3 year streak of position eliminations and this annual cycle of worry is ending.
The job of the district is not to build buildings. Not to make change just to make change. Nor is our purpose to grapple with budget deficits every year.
Our job is to serve and educate students. We hope having dealt with these issues head on, we have put those issues behind us, so our teachers can once gain focus totally on what they have been hired to do, that is, to educate students.