Tempers were hot as ever at Monday night's Charleston County School District board meeting, but the elected body managed to pass a $357 million general operating budget for the 2012-2013 school year that included salary increases for teachers.
Under South Carolina law, school districts are required to give their employees automatic annual pay raises, also known as "step increases." But under tight budget restrictions for 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, the state legislature voted to allow districts to back out on the contractual obligation, and Charleston County was one of 17 districts in the state that nixed the step increases both years. At Monday night's meeting, Chief Financial and Operations Officer Michael Bobby said the cost-cutting decision saved the district $20.5 million over the past two years. "That's one of the major reasons we've been able to survive over the last several years," Bobby said. "That's also what we're trying to recoup for our staff."
The budget that passed Monday night included two years' worth of step increases and a 2-percent cost-of-living increase. At a previous meeting, school board member the Rev. Chris Collins proposed a budget that included three step increases, but his proposal was shot down.
More than 30 teachers showed up to the meeting, but only one of them addressed the board directly on the topic of step increases: Patrick Hayes, a fourth-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary School who became a vocal advocate for restoring teacher salaries during budget discussions this spring.
"Two steps plus 2 percent will put most of us where we expected to be next year," Hayes said during the public comment session. "We were never looking for a raise, just the salaries we had been promised."
When the budget finally passed near the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, teachers erupted in applause from the back of the room. Afterward in the lobby, Hayes said he hoped teachers would remain this involved in school district decisions in the future.
"I don't know whether they felt like they couldn't," Hayes said. "I think it was just kind of a habit of passive acceptance, just waiting to open up the paper and see what was going to happen to us."
The 2012-2013 budget is a $25 million increase over the previous year's budget, with the difference coming from the district's fund balance and a tweaking of millage rates. Bobby said there might be a need for slight tax increases in 2014 to keep servicing the district's debt, resulting in an increased property tax burden of about $8 per year for a homeowner with a $200,000 house. The budget that passed was smaller than a previous version, as $650,000 was cut from a program to hire literacy teachers and $320,000 was cut from a strategic improvement fund.
The board also voted to approve the hiring of new principals at Garrett Academy of Technology, North Charleston Elementary School, Baptist Hill Elementary School, A.C. Corcoran Elementary School, and Haut Gap Middle School. Only Dan Conner, the candidate for the principal position at Northwoods Middle School, did not receive the board's approval.
School board meetings can be a little bit tense in Charleston County, and Monday night’s session was no exception. To read more about the hang-ups and clashes that dominated the meeting, click here.