Davis: Beaufort County public schools facing possible drop in state funding

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comApril 26, 2014 

After several years of gains in state funding, the Beaufort County School District could be getting less money this year under legislation that has passed the S.C. House of Representatives.

The state budget bill could reduce the district's funding by nearly $700,000, as Gov. Nikki Haley's education initiative redistributes money to poorer school districts, according to state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.

The House built several millions in to its budget to keep districts from losing money because of this change, but different projections suggest that might not be enough, Davis said.

He hopes the Senate can restore some of that funding when its Finance Committee, of which he is a member, begins debating the 2014-15 budget this week.

"If you are going to propose something dramatic that will cause such big effects on districts, like the governor's education proposal, you have to phase it in and hold some districts harmless so they can adjust and transition," Davis said.

When discussions begin Tuesday, Davis hopes to get a roughly $5 million appropriation included in the budget to "hold harmless" the districts that would lose money as a result of the governor's funding reform.

That would prevent any school districts from seeing a cut in state funding, Beaufort County district chief operational services officer Phyllis White said. That gives the district time to determine how to make up the funding drop in future years, she said.

Several other districts are also facing a loss, including Charleston County, at more than $3 million, and York District 4, at about $1 million, according to numbers provided by the state Department of Education.

"The proposed budget from the state does not look very good for Beaufort County," superintendent Jeff Moss said. "I think there could have been a different approach taken to how the state is funding public education that would have been more equitable."

WHY THE CUT?

The possible funding cut is largely the result of Haley's proposal to redistribute per-student funds to give poorer districts more money, Davis said.

The initiative is laudable and everyone has a commitment to hold harmless affected districts, he said, but the General Assembly needs to determine how much money is needed to do that.

Haley's initiative bases the funding on the number of students in a district who receive free or reduced-price lunches, are on Medicaid, or are failing to meet state standards. Beaufort County schools have relatively fewer students in those categories compared to many districts, so it loses money to other, poorer districts, Davis said.

When Haley first introduced the plan during the State of the State address in January, she said no district should receive less funding because of it, administration spokesman Doug Mayer said.

There is some "hold harmless" funding built in to the House's version of the budget -- about $3.5 million. That amount was determined by using student projections from the Board of Economic Advisors and meant to cover all the potential cuts.

But now that is not enough, Davis said.

According to projections used by the Senate -- provided by the state Department of Education -- the fewer than 10 districts that would experience cuts need roughly $5 million among them to be fully held harmless.

"Governor Haley's K-12 education plan reforms our antiquated funding formula, increases access to technology, and provides a reading coach for every elementary school in South Carolina - all without raising taxes or decreasing funding to any school district," Mayer said.

"The House has already taken action and passed these historic reforms, which will dramatically benefit every single district in the state, and the governor looks forward to working with the Senate to do the same," he added..

Attempts Friday to reach local delegation representatives were unsuccessful.

ONGOING FUNDING FIGHT

For several years, Beaufort County schools received no funding through the state's Education Finance Act. The county's legislative delegation helped change that, and now the district expects to receive $7.1 million in EFA funding next year, an increase of $1.65 million from this year.

But that amount is offset by a $2.35 million decrease in the separate, per-student funding being routed to other districts.

Beaufort County school board member Mary Cordray said she sees that as a setback in the funding progress that has been made in recent years.

"I feel like we are making great strides moving forward and would hate to see anything that would cause us to slow down or stop," said Cordray.

If the "hold harmless" appropriation is not included in the budget and the up to $700,000 funding cut goes through, the district would have to revise its budget, Moss said.

"Bottom line, we would have to reprioritize where we are spending our revenue," he said.

But Davis said he is confident the committee will find the money to offset the loss. He and the senators from the other districts facing cuts have been vocal, and he believes they have support in the Senate, he said.

"I think we can get the 'hold harmless' money in the budget," Davis said. "That's the best we can do this year, but we are making good progress, and I think we can get it."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content:

Beaufort County schools looking at $10 million increase in next year's budget: Increases largely coming from state mandates, growing enrollment, April 15, 2014

Faulty projections put Beaufort County schools in $4 million hole, April 5, 2014

Beaufort schools consider whether to continue using lobbyists for fair funding, January 8, 2014

Sen. Davis seeks more money for Beaufort County, January 13, 2014

School district could change bus routes, stops next year: Beaufort County schools auditing bus routes for efficiency, cost savings, April 20, 2014

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