School Board Update
By Alex Saitta
August 13, 2012
Question: The school board passed the 2012-13 budget. What are the highlights?
Alex: The past four years have been difficult. Money is limited, so the questions have been where are we going to cut? What will we protect, and if there is any extra money, what will it be spent on? For instance in June 2010 the board voted to eliminate 30 classroom teaching positions like it had no choice in the matter. I voted against that, because there was a choice. Donít do it -- cut something else.
Question: Times are still tough, but the board is now adding classroom teachers. Whatís different now?
Alex: The November 2010 election changed the slant of the board. Judy Edwards (a former teacher) and myself were joined by two new board members, Ben Trotter and Jimmy Gillespie, and we are focusing on protecting the classroom. Like I said, in June 2010 the board eliminated 30 classroom teachers. In 2011, we faced another deficit, and the administrationís initial recommendation was to eliminate 22 more classroom teachers.
Question: What was the response?
Alex: This board said, ďNoĒ, make the reductions in non-classroom areas and donít cut classroom teaching positions. In the end, $2.75 million was cut to balance the budget in 2011, and we managed to free up enough money to add 9 teachers. In the budget we just approved, we added another 17 classroom teachers. This will reduce class sizes and give students more personalized instruction.
The new budget doesnít raise tax rates like Greenville which raised taxes 4.7 mills, Anderson 1 which was up 5.1 mills, Anderson 4 up 5.2 mills and Oconee County schools raised taxes 8.3 mills. Nor does this board rely on borrowing money like the old Pickens school board did. Unlike the past and surrounding districts, this board is living within its means.
Question: I read the board aimed to end the annual cycle of worry. What was that all about?
Alex: In 2008 school tax revenue fell substantially, due to the Great Recession. Initially there was a lot of denial from Washington DC down to local school boards. The thinking was if we make some one year cuts in spending (like furloughing employees a few days), the economy will soon bounce back and then weíll be on our merry way like nothing happened. When revenue did not bounce back, the deficits came right back. From 2009 to 2011 when the initial budget projections came out in January, invariably the district was facing a $2 to $4 million deficit. This set-off a period of worry from January to the final passage of the budget in June. When employees are worried about losing their jobs, theyíre not focused on doing their jobs. This weighed on teachers and the instruction of the students.
Question: Thatís the worry part. Got it.
Alex: In 2011 this new board took some difficult steps to balance the budget not only for that year, but the following year too. Because of that and a firming economy, the 3 year streak of position eliminations was ended, along with the worry of annual lay-offs. This has improved morale inside the classroom and outside too.
Question: Many teachers feel no one listens to them and they donít have a voice.
Alex: I made more than 100 school visits the past four years and I heard that too, so I led an effort where board members visited each school this spring and conducted Q&A sessions with the employees. The top concern we heard was a lack of a pay raise in 3 years, as well as a steady reduction in the time teachers have to prepare for their lessons. Thanks to the state legislature and prudent budget management, all employees received a 2% raise and teachers a bit more than that.
Question: How does the budget look over the long-term?
Alex: Like most of government, our budget has long-term problems. My viewpoint is not in the majority, so little is being done. The medical benefits for district employees rose 23% the past two years. Retirement costs are up 17.5% the past two years. Workermanís compensation costs rose 77%. It is unsustainable.
Alex: Yep. At some point the state is going to have to reform the pay, retirement and medical benefit systems to stem the growth in those costs because they are starting to eat up the budget. When more is being spent on that, less is available to educate the students.
While we are waiting for the legislature to do that, we still must move forward educationally. That means better utilizing the funds we do have. If the district wants to add something new, it will have to eliminate something that isnít as important to free up the money for the new purchase. Additionally, what extra money we do have must be focused on the classroom, in order to keep academic performance up. Thatís starting to happen, but it will have to move further in that direction.
Question: I understand the district has set an graduation rate goal of 80%. How do you plan on getting there?
Alex: If you ask elementary school teachers whom is likely to fall off the graduation path, most can pick those children out in first or second grade. Additionally, if a student is reading on his grade level, he is likely to graduate. Superintendent Dr. Kelly Pew has made those two things the basis of the initial steps we are taking to move the district toward the 80% goal.
Question: Specifically what is the district going to do?
Alex: There are four initial steps: First, we have restored all 4K classes -- get the children starting to read early. Second, Reading Interventionists (RI) are teachers who teach students to improve their reading skills and habits. The RIís work one-on-one and with small groups of elementary school students -- very personalized; weíre adding more of those. Third, at the neediest elementary schools we added 12 transition classes. They will be second grade classes that contain 12 students most at-risk of later falling off the graduation path and dropping out.
Question: What is the fourth step?
Alex: Four graduation coaches have been added. One to cover the middle and high school in each of the four areas of the county. They will work with students who have fallen off the graduation path, to help them with the transition from middle to high school and get them over major hurdles like passing the high school exit exam.
Public schools are notorious for hiring people for this and that program, and they have little impact because they are not held accountable for doing their assigned duties and getting results. This step has me the most concerned, because the graduation coaches will float between the middle and high schools and donít have specific classrooms. Often such employees get co-oped by the principals to do other (non-educational) duties. Weíll have to watch this one closely.
Question: What is APEX and what was the problem there?
Alex: Last year some high school teachers complained about APEX. APEX is a computer program that allows students to make-up courses they are failing during the year. The stories we heard were along the lines of students failing a year long course and making it up in only a few days at the end of the year using APEX. As one APEX proctor described it to me, ďAPEX is a joke!Ē. Students knew this and some werenít trying in class because they knew they could pick up the credit doing 1/10 the work by APEXing the course at year end. This was undermining our teachers. The board stepped in and insisted the rules and enforcement of APEX be revamped.
Having talked to many teachers this year, it looks like those holes were plugged. The students need to earn their diplomas. We canít allow them to cut corners just because we want to raise the ďgraduationĒ rate.
Question: I read school lunch prices are rising again. Is that true?
Alex: Yes. The federal government subsidizes each meal sold in school cafeterias. That federal subsidy grows every year, so some districts have been charging low prices for their meals. The USDA is cracking down on such school districts. We are one of them. The USDA states if your district charges less than the national average of $2.50 a meal, then you have to raise your lunch price 10 cents each year to catch up or the district must put more of its own money into the program. Our district charges $1.75 a meal on average, so it was caught in that USDA net.
Question: Why did you vote against the price increase?
Alex: I didnít vote for the increase last year, nor this year. A 10 cent increase will give our food services department an extra $80,000 in meal revenue. If the USDA is saying we have to charge more, then I wanted assurance the $80,000 was going to be spent on improving the quality of the food. That is, that money should be given right back to the student or employee who is paying the higher price in the form of a better product.
Question: Is the food not good?
Alex: Not good enough. The board now requires the food service department to conduct an annual survey. In the survey 83% rated the service as satisfactory, 87% rated the cleanliness and appearance of the cafeteria as satisfactory, but only 51% said the food taste/ quality was satisfactory. When the atmosphere of an elementary school cafeteria out-polls the quality/ taste of the food by more than 25 percentage points, thatís a pretty loud bell ringing improvement is needed. So I said, the extra $80,000 should be spent on improving the quality of the food and the menu options. My idea didnít get traction with the rest of the board, so now food service will spend the extra $80,000 on whatever it wants -- equipment, salaries, more managers, table clothes, who knows?
Question: Is it true the school district filed a lawsuit against the city of Clemson?
Alex: Yes. Read the enclosed op-ed I wrote in the Greenville News for my reasoning in supporting the suit. In sum, the district joined the county government in suing Clemson over their mis-use of about $10 million in education and county tax dollars. We tried to work it out and offered to split the difference, but Clemson wasnít interested in meeting us half way. We could have just let them get away with it, or filed suit. We chose the latter.
Question: Whatís the latest with the building program?
Alex: I didnít vote for the $315 million building program in 2006 nor did I vote to expand it the numerous times to its current cost of $374 million. Iím happy the program is 87% complete. In Pickens there is one final project, converting the old high school to the new middle school. That will open in August 2013.
Question: Is the roadwork at Pickens High School ever going to be finished?
Alex: The construction of the school and moving in the employees and students went very well last year. The roadwork was a disaster. Having SCDOT, private contractors, public utility companies, the school district and private land owners (the district had to buy the right of ways) working together was not a good combination. Finally, the project is coming to a close a year after the school opened.
Question: Will the entire $374 million be spent?
Alex: Likely -- it is budgeted to be spent. Above that we just discovered there is surplus of funds. The money for the building program was borrowed in 2006. The Dr. Lee DíAndrea administration had a plan to get the money, but didnít have a construction plan, so it took years to get the building program in gear. Because of that delay more interest was earned than expected. It appears there is about $13 million above and beyond the $374 million or what is budgeted to be spent.
Question: $13 million?
Alex: Yes. After the board was told of the $13 million, the administration listed 12 other building projects it felt the school board just had to know all about. Sitting on the school board since 2004, I've been down the ďwe have to grow the building program againĒ road many times now. By now I surely have a sense of what an attempt to grow the program looks like. This looked awfully suspicious ó a $13 million surplus crops up, and then we are handed a list of $9 million in other building projects. The boards of 2006 and 2008 would have taken off with that list, looking to spend that extra money.
Question: What was your feeling on all this?
Alex: I thought the building program was too big to start with, so I voted against the program. Surely, I donít support expanding the program. I think the extra $13 million should be returned to the taxpayers, so I made a motion to do that, and it passed by one vote. Like I said, the school board of 2010 is different. Prudent.
Question: How can the $13 million be returned to the taxpayers?
Alex: A property tax cut. The tax you pay for school district debt on your house, your business, your cars or your boat is 54 mills and that tax levy raises $25 million county wide. That $25 million is then used to make the districtís annual bond payment. The surplus is $13 million. Once the building program is complete in 2014, the board will legally be free to put that $13 million toward the next bond payment, so for that year the taxpayers should only have to come up with the remaining $12 million. That would drop the tax rate from 54 mills to about 25 mills. That is, that one year youíd get a tax cut and it would return the $13 million to taxpayers.
Question: Should? Is this decision in stone?
Alex: No. The board can vote to reverse that decision any time between now and when it will be implemented in June 2014. At any time the board can decide to spend the surplus and grow the building program again. We have an election between now and June 2014. Iím running this November, so is Judy Edwards in Easley and Herb Cooper in Clemson. Remember, you always get the government you elect. Make a knowledgeable vote.