Schools seek flexibility to make cuts

February 16, 2009 

Faced with tough financial decisions in tough financial times, school districts across the state are pushing the legislature to pass a bill that would give them more flexibility on how they spend state education dollars.

The fear for some parents, however, is that if districts have too much leeway, programs they consider important could be cut.

Currently, districts are required to spend state funds on specific programs and must use certain amounts for specific purposes such as instructional materials, salaries and academic programs.

State education officials and local leaders support a bill that is scheduled to go before the South Carolina House of Representatives on Tuesday because it would give them more flexibility to cut programs in tough economic times.

But JoAnn Orischak, of Parents of the Academically Talented of Hilton Head Island, has created a petition urging legislators to protect existing programs. As of Friday afternoon, 204 residents had signed.

The petition says the proposal could lead some districts to eliminate gifted and talented programs. Without them, Orischak said students won't be challenged and won't cultivate the skills and critical thinking they now learn in advanced courses.

"We just don't want to leave that possibility" open, she said. "We want to make sure (the bill) provides the maximum protection for the programs."

Sandy Smith, deputy superintendent for policy and legislation for the South Carolina Department of Education, said the bill is not intended to allow districts to eliminate gifted and talented programs.

While it could allow districts to reduce the number of such classes, Smith said districts would still be required to offer them.

"It just may not be to the extent they are currently offering if they don't have the funds they need to continue to offer that level of service," she said.

Valerie Truesdale, superintendent of the Beaufort County School District, said she doesn't intend to eliminate the programs.

While flexibility in spending is helpful, Truesdale said the district has been managing with less state money for years due to changes in funding formulas. She said that has put the local district in better financial shape than others because it doesn't depend as heavily on state funds. As a result, she does not expect to eliminate programs.

Since 2005, the district has lost about $15 million in state money. Much of that, however, was made up through local taxes -- an option state law no longer allows, said Phyllis White, the district's chief operational services officer.

"So you hate to say it, but it was really good timing that we lost our state funding three years ago," White said.

Jim Foster of the state Department of Education said giving districts flexibility on how they spend money is essential in an "extreme economy."

"We haven't seen anything like this since the Great Depression," he said. "Public schools have absorbed $334 million in cuts since July. Next year it looks like that number is going to be even higher.

"With that as the backdrop, it becomes more important ... where the decision is made on where to cut and how to cut," he said. "We want that as close to the local school districts as possible."

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