I wrote the first draft of this in May, and just got around to finishing it up.
In early November 2014 I received a few emails and phone calls from parents they were hearing the district administration wanted to close Ambler, AR Lewis and Holly Springs elementary schools. It was all hearsay at that point. My initial response was I hadn’t heard about it and dismissed it as an untrue rumor. You can see I was clueless at the time. Here is one of my initial email responses to a parent who heard this.
I heard a rumor from an employee and a parent about the administration wanting to close those 3 schools, but that is all I know. The district administration has not said anything to me about this. The board has not met and directed the administration to look into this. There has not been a board meeting where this was discussed either. That doesn’t mean much, though, because I would be the last one they’d tell because they know I oppose it and I’ll do so vocally. At some point they’d need to present their plan to the board. There would be public input, debate and then a vote by the board. The school board would have to vote on closing any of those schools. Not the district administration. I would vote against closing any of those schools.
This person seeing I was doubting it all, sent me an internal memo written by the district administration and sent to principals. That memo was four pages long and one paragraph stated “it is difficult to maintain schools with low enrollment,” it used the phrase “small school consolidation” and the paragraph concluded, “all options must be on the table.”
It didn’t say the administration wanted to close these small schools, but only it might consider it. It was what it was, though. I then spoke to one employee that said the district administration met with the faculty of their school and discussed the possibility of closing that school. That is, this person heard it firsthand. Neal Collins (Easley House Representative) wrote on Facebook he met with the administration two weeks before and it said the option of closing some of the smaller schools was on the table.
My conclusion was, this was being formally talked about within the administration and that is what was turning those schools upside down. Many of those people live in my district. Naturally, they called me and asked about the plans in the works. I couldn't answer.
Administration’s 5 Year Plan:
A couple of weeks later on Monday, November 24, 2014 the administration presented its 5-year plan to the public and the board. It was entitled, “2020 Vision for SDPC Success: Five Year Plan — Becoming a Top Five District in SC.” The plan placed an emphasis on building maintenance, technology refreshes, extra teacher pay raises and classroom supplies. It called for funding this with tax increases of a 4.7 mill for debt service ($5.8 million more in borrowing each year), and an 8.5 mill tax increase over 5 years for operations. It discussed the possibility of eliminating teaching positions over five years and raising class sizes.
While I agreed with the priorities of the plan of building maintenance, classroom supplies, technology refreshes and boosting pay, on the how to pay for it side a fourth option was never discussed — eliminating low priority spending, excess and waste.
Closing Schools Option:
Discussed by the administration and listed on a few pages of the presentation were details surrounding the potential closing of any or a group of seven schools (Ambler, Holly Springs, AR Lewis, Dacusville Middle, McKissick, Hagood, and Central). The administration talked about the higher cost per student at the smaller schools and it listed by closing 3 to 4 schools would save up to $1.6 million a year.
That evening at the school board meeting, I questioned the plan and specifically the closing of schools. I stated I was 100% against closing any schools. Phillip Bowers wanted the board to pass a resolution saying it was opposed to closing any schools. The rest either didn’t say anything or said the option needed to be on the table.
Here are some board member comments from that meeting.
Either the district administration initiated this idea of closing schools on its own, or there was some discussions with supportive board members and the administration saying let’s look into this option, and I just wasn’t in the loop.
My take-away on the administration’s 5-year proposal was, if the board doesn’t increase taxes, the only other choice is to cut classroom teaching positions and closing schools. All three were bad choices.
I then said there was a fourth option. I’d like to see the board take the administration’s list of new spending wants and needs, and scrub it down to just the needs. (That was later done to a degree with the capital needs plan, but not the general fund budget.) The board should have gone to into the general fund budget and cut/ reduce low priority, excessive and wasteful spending in the system. For instance, to help pay for some of this, why didn't the administration propose cutting the bonuses given to employees who retire or leave for another district? Or propose any of the other recommendations I’ve made on cutting the waste and excess, and other non-classroom spending reductions the administration should be looking for?
Generally, I support smaller class sizes and smaller schools to more personalize the learning environment, so I don't like this direction of raising class sizes and making schools larger.
When the Greenville Plan was first passed in 2006, it was a challenge to make the new big bond payment. The board passed a massive tax hike, so that big nut has long been covered. A couple of years ago the district was challenged by rising cleaning, running and repair costs on a day to day basis because of the 800,000 sqf of new space. With the help of growing revenue and tighter controls, that $3 million expense has been covered. The district is facing an on-going challenge in replacing HVAC’s, roofs, computer refreshes and repaving, about $4.5 to $5 million a year. The district has had a good start on that, spending $4.2 million in 2013-14 and $8.9 million in 2014-15, and then allocated $4.7 million in the spring of 2014 taking the district into 2015-16.
The administration will present the 2016-17 capital plan next month. So far it has $3.5 million in revenue and looking at the most recent schedule the project costs will run about $4.5 million, so it is $1 million short.
The 3rd teacher pay raise for this year was funded with $1.0 million in savings. (There wasn't enough revenue to cover it.) I would have given only two teacher pay raises in 2015-16. The third I would have given in 2017 when the extra TIF revenue starts to flow in. I would have instead used that $1.0 million in savings for the upcoming capital budget. Doing that math ($3.5 refinancing savings plus $1 million savings), would have given us $4.5 million for the 2016-17 capital budget and it would have been completely funded. Like I mentioned, the 2016-17 capital budget plan will be proposed next month, and it looks like it is $1 million short.
Beyond that I would sell the old Pickens Middle School, the 26 acres across from Dacusville Elementary and the 20 acres across from Daniel High to help sure up capital project financing.
Not A Crisis:
Crisis? As you might remember, the district being in a "financial crisis" was a topic of debate in late 2014 and early 2015. They were saying the school district was in a financial crisis, and to address this crisis schools had to be closed or taxes raised. They were mostly outside education advocates, though some in the administration chimed in on this as well.
I was a finanical analyst for years. I know a financial crisis when I see one. I asked what financial crisis are they talking about? A financial crisis occurs when your revenue is here and expenses are here as well, and then revenue plummets down to this level. All of a sudden there are all these expenditures that no longer have revenue to pay for them. That’s a financial crisis.
I claimed there was no financial crisis and they were falsely creating the impression of a financial crisis and schools were about to be closed, in order to scare people into supporting a tax hike. I made the case last year's school district’s budget (2014-15) started the year in $500,000 surplus. That surplus grew by mid-year where budgeted spending was bumped up a bit for new priorities like classroom supplies. That's not a symptom of a financial crisis. I also said revenue was growing going into 2015-16. In the end, they were proven dead wrong by the revenue numbers. The revenue for 2015-16 was up more than $3.5 million. And the state recently announced 2016-17 revenue is growing at its highest rate since 2008.
Some were trying to create the impression the district was facing a financial crisis, to force the exordinary actions that they wanted — in this case a big tax increase.
To solve this “crisis”, they were saying taxes must be raised significantly. They know few would support another large tax increase for those things. Since 2007 the overall school tax rate on property has been raised from 128 mills to 165 today, just below the all-time record of 167 mills. In order to get people railed up and supporting the tax increases, they said to parents and teachers the district is in a financial crisis and your school might have to be closed. When parents and teachers got upset, they were then told, well, if you support this tax increase plan then we won’t have to close your school.
Here are some comments that were posted by the Concerned Citizens of Pickens County (co-founder Robin Nelson Miller) in the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015: If your school board member votes NO to a tax increase, he is bringing you one step closer to school consolidation… On December 1, four of our six school board members voted NO to a tax increase, thus bringing us all one step closer to school consolidation… Nobody likes to increase the burden on our families, but we have looked at the numbers forwards and backwards. The cost to our families is much greater if we close schools… Folks, we don't have to close schools. We have options! Please get the facts and make your voices heard!... Nobody wants to close those schools. Please don't make the school district choose between closing schools or providing a 21st century education for its 16,000+ students! We beg of you, please consider the benefits of stabilizing the mill at a rate that is sustainable long term... if a school closes, it will be because we can't afford to keep it open. Period. And if we can't afford to keep it open, it will be because the anti-tax folks have won the war they continue to wage on our school district. Mr. Saitta can write a hundred soliloquies about how he'd never vote to close a school, but it doesn't change the truth.
By this time Concerned Citizens of Pickens County leadership had become the self-appointed voice of the school district and board leadership, so many employees and parents were quite upset thinking their school might be closed at any time. It was also evident in my opinion, Concerned Citizens of Pickens County was also encouraging employees to engage in spreading such a message.
As late as May 27, 2015 they were still using the ploy with Robin Nelson Miller writing in the Pickens County Courier: Six school districts in Kansas are closing early this year because they can’t afford to stay open. The no-tax pledge in that state is failing abysmally, and the students in Kansas are paying the price. A school board in Brevard County, Fla., voted to close three schools instead of passing a modest millage rate increase to keep them open. A school board in West Clermont, Ohio, has forced the school district to merge with a neighboring school district just to keep schools open. We will not wait until schools close to wake up to what is happening in Pickens County. We are wide awake, and we will work tirelessly to protect our children and the people responsible for educating them!
Unfortunately, the district administration echoed the theme a few times. For instance, at the November 24, 2015 school board meeting, Dr. Danny Merck, superintendent, said, “The truth is the higher taxes go up, the less likely there is going to be a school that is closed.”
On television in December 2014, John Eby, district administration spokesman, said, “Anything that puts additional strain on the general fund makes it more likely we’ll have to consolidate schools… The capital needs plan [and its tax increase] would take pressure off the general fund and make it less likely that we have to consolidate schools.”
Put this all together and Voila, those who were told about their school possibly closing were suddenly advocating for a tax increase to keep their school open, which was not going to be closed in the first place.
To close a school is a decision of the school board, not the Concerned Citizens of Pickens County, nor the district administration, but you’d never know it after reading those statements. CCPC talks about roles and responsbilities, well closing a school is clearly the school board's decision.
In the end there was no financial crisis. Both the captial budget and general fund budgets were passed with ample increases in revenue; there was no tax increase and no schools were closed.
In the past, closing schools wasn’t on the table. That’s changed with this new administration, board leadership and new majority. They are still seriously considering the closing of a school or two. The last public meeting the discussion centered on Hagood and McKissick Elementary Schools. I don't support this because I feel smaller schools and class sizes provide a more personalized learning environment. By and large parents and the community support smaller schools too. They just paid $50,000 to do a facilities study and we'll see what that returns.