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Three things Beaufort County must do to improve schools | Opinion

When I arrived at the Beaufort County School District a year ago, my first impression was that a community with so much wealth could do better for its students. I leave with that impression confirmed and intensified. We can – we must – do better.

My concern is not the potential of our students, the talents of our teachers or the capabilities of our administrators. I’m very proud of all they’ve achieved and the improvements we’ve made together despite the odds against success. One obvious example is seven straight years of improved high school graduation rates.

Rather, the heart of the problem is a statewide school funding system that’s placed South Carolina 41st in the nation (according to U.S. News and World Report) in the quality of its Pre-K through Grade 12 education system.

The roots of this funding system date back to 1999, when the South Carolina Supreme Court held that the state’s Constitution requires only that each student have a “minimally adequate education.” With that phrase, the high court set a new low in educational expectations.

Perhaps spurred on by this underachiever mindset, the state in 2006 switched from funding schools with property taxes to funding them from an increase in the sales tax. The modest sales-tax boost has never generated enough revenue to offset funds lost from property taxes.

This misguided move impacts poor districts the hardest, but Beaufort County is not immune. Despite many outward signs of wealth here, 56 percent of our students live in poverty. English is the second language for about 17 percent of students. These children need assistance and services that our sales tax system fails to fully fund.

Making matters worse, teacher and administrator turnover is high as educators quit in frustration over pay that’s too low and work challenges that are too big.

At the same time, we desperately need repairs to aging buildings and more school rooms for an expanding population. Yet Beaufort County residents have voted twice against raising capital funds for schools in the last three years. In fact, we haven’t passed a bond vote in 11 years, even as other growing school districts have passed referendums every four or five years to keep pace with change.

How do we overcome these challenges?

We begin with what we can control. In November, county voters will consider a $344 million bond referendum that would allow us to improve building security, repair leaking roofs, broken air conditioning and aging athletic facilities, and address overcrowding at May River High and River Ridge Academy.

The cost to resident home owners? Nine dollars a month, less than the price of a movie ticket.

At the state level, the South Carolina General Assembly should raise starting teacher salaries that currently begin at just $35,000 a year. That’s not enough to afford apartment rent in Beaufort County, which has the state’s highest cost of living. Let’s raise beginning teacher salaries to $45,000 so they need spend no more than 30 percent of after-tax income for rent, as budget experts recommend. Let them live with the dignity they have earned as professionals.

We have come a long way in the past year toward restoring public trust and confidence in our school board and school system. I know my successor, Dr. Frank Rodriguez, will build and expand on this progress. I like him, trust him and believe in him. You will, too.

I leave knowing we’re moving in the right direction with a talented new leader who will keep us on track, and that our students will – much sooner than later – have the high-quality education they deserve.

Three crucial issues

Vote on bond referendum

Our voters haven’t approved a school bond in 11 years, and it shows. One school is so bad that it must be torn down. As the seventh fastest-growing county in the state, we can’t keep pace with classroom space, so some students are being taught in mobile classrooms. Roofs leak in multiple places, toilets break, athletic facilities are dilapidated.

In 2018, when the last school bond referendum suffered an overwhelming defeat, voters expressed outrage at a school board and superintendent they mistrusted. In the past year, I took over as interim superintendent, a new permanent superintendent has been appointed and a new school board leads the district.

On Tuesday, June 18, that new school board approved a two-part countywide $344 million bond referendum vote on Nov. 5.

The first question will seek voter approval for $290 million in safety and security upgrades at all district schools; classroom additions at River Ridge Academy and May River High; a replacement building for Robert Smalls International Academy; renovations at three schools (Beaufort Elementary, Hilton Head Island Middle and Battery Creek High); and technology infrastructure updates at schools districtwide.

The second question will seek voter approval for an additional $54 million in Career and Technology Education expansions at Battery Creek and May River high schools; design work for renovations at Hilton Head Island High; improvements to athletic facilities at numerous district middle and high schools; and playground improvements at early childhood centers, elementary and PreK-8 schools.

I urge you to vote in November.

Increase pay for new teachers

Low pay for new teachers isn’t just a Beaufort County problem, it’s a South Carolina problem and an American disgrace. USA Today recently reported, “Most new teachers can’t afford to rent where they work.”

That’s certainly true for our district’s new teachers, who make just $35,000 a year. A typical one-bedroom apartment in Beaufort County rents for about $1,200. So our new teachers may pay about half their monthly income after federal taxes for rent. Budget experts told USA Today that no one should pay more than 30 percent of after-tax income for housing.

Each year we offer jobs to highly qualified young college graduates who are excited to begin their teaching careers in Beaufort County. But after they price apartments and evaluate other costs of living here, they turn down our offers and begin their careers somewhere else.

South Carolina law doesn’t allow funds from bond referendums to be used for salaries. If teachers are to be paid as professionals, the General Assembly must act.

Pass an education reform bill

We need to change our state’s education requirement from “minimally adequate” to “maximally adequate.” This is the 21st century, when competition is global and technology changes in a nanosecond. Jobs in our state are no longer just in its fields and factories.

Our governor and General Assembly say we need to improve our education system, yet little gets done in Columbia. This year, the state House of Representatives passed an education reform bill but the Senate failed to approve it. Too busy on other matters, the media reported.

I won’t go into the pros and cons of each section of this bill. But I will say we need a law that significantly raises new teacher salaries, makes sensible changes to student testing requirements, strengthens important reading programs and more.

To get a strong bill passed, voters must pressure their state representatives to do their jobs and do right by our children. Many politicians fear controversy in an election year, so let them know you will hold them accountable at the voting booth for how they improve education for all children.

Many of society’s problems have their sources – and solutions – in education. A poor education can consign many of our children to lives of poverty, joblessness and failed ambition. A quality education can make children productive adults, economically secure, with their dreams fulfilled. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful tool which you can use to change the world.”

Herb Berg has served as Beaufort County’s interim superintendent for the past year.