FEATURE ‌ A Little Penny Goes a Long Way 

School district juggles state mandates, local initiatives in $318 million budget

"Where are the parents?"

It was a question asked more than once at a recent forum on the school district budget that drew in a number of teachers and administrators, but no parents. It may be because a new tax structure that funds schools through sales taxes instead of property taxes dilutes the urgency for many parents to get involved. But, let's be honest, were they any more concerned when there was a tax bill on the line?

But if you think you're not paying for it, well, you haven't seen your recent receipts with that shiny new penny added to the sales tax. They're getting it from you, just in parcels instead of loads. Meanwhile, businesses and Charleston's fortunate second-homers are getting pinched coming and going with no tax cut and a hike in district spending that's got to come from somewhere. Here's the story on the school district's budget:

The basics

Okay, try to bear this next bit. The district's operating budget is climbing from $308 million to $318 million. That $10 million hike includes $18 million in new costs offset by $8 million in budget cuts. And that will be the most numbers you'll find collected in two sentences for the rest of this story. The district budget runs from July to June, but tax bills won't go out until October. Consider it something to look forward to this fall.

Because Columbia said so...

There are a few state-mandated budget hikes that the district can't escape, including teacher salary hikes, retirement set-asides, and more than $4 million heading to charter schools on a per-student basis. Charter school supporters would note that, in an ideal world, the district would account for that loss by reducing their costs elsewhere, since those students in the charter schools aren't using resources in the traditional system. But you know what they say about ideals ... well, they don't say anything about ideals, but you get the picture.

Because 75 Calhoun St. said so...

There are other commitments that the School Board brought on itself, which would be noble if it was just their money we were talking about. Well, some of it's still noble — it's just your philanthropy, not theirs. So just tell your deacon and those Girl Scouts that you gave at the school board office. After a lashing from the state School Board, the district committed more than $700,000 to help correct the course of four Charleston schools. That support runs the gamut from administrative support to classroom aid. The budget also includes $2.8 million to pay for new teachers as well as staff salary hikes to match the state-mandated teacher raises. There's also $1 million for early childhood education, with expectations that the budget will climb in the next few years to further expand the program.

On the chopping block

Not looking to face the budget firing squad without some concessions, the district is making a handful of cuts to offset those increases. Schools will hold on to computers that they usually replace every four years for one more year, saving $1.3 million, and the district will halve the $3.4 million that it had planned to put in the reserve fund. The rest of the $8 million in cuts comes from eliminating unneeded positions and other cost savings.

The hidden cost

Homeowners may not be directly responsible for the money to run the schools, but we've still got to pay to build them and that bill is getting more expensive. The district's debt payments, primarily attached to construction costs, will climb to nearly $58 million. That's going to mean a $195 tax bill for a $265,000 home (a $51 climb). Of course if you're a homeowner, you're doing the party dance because your tax bill is still hundreds of dollars less than last year. So, maybe you do have a few dollars for those Girls Scout cookies after all.

The really hidden cost

A large portion of state funding for schools is based on a district's ability to pull the money from local taxpayers. Being a haven for high-dollar coastal homes and more than a handful of big-ticket businesses, Charleston's taxpayers have been sending money to Columbia for years and getting a pittance back, with the assumption that we can pay for our own schools while other needy districts struggle. The formula may be skewed, but it's accurate. Regardless of the loss, Charleston taxpayers still pay less per capita for their schools than most any other district. But what used to be a modest drain year to year has become an annual vacuum as coastal property values soar. This year's $12.3 million hit is expected to be blunted by $10.4 million in one-time aid from the legislature, but that doesn't fix the problem that will only grow worse each year. "At some point we've got to draw the line on this thing," said Board Member Brian Moody. "Charleston County shouldn't be educating the whole state." But any attempt to fix the problem for Charleston would negatively impact several dozen other districts that benefit from our tax dollars. As a gloomy preview to that battle, an error in the state funding calculation was identified recently that would have dissolved all but $3 million of that $12.3 million if corrected, but the legislature decided not to fix the problem since it would've meant taking the money promised to other districts. The only long-term solution is to come up with additional dollars and nobody's found that money tree yet.

The (arguably delayed) rise of Arthur Ravenel Jr.

When Ravenel was elected in November, two shy of his cabal of yes men (and woman), Charleston waited with bated breath to see how he would fit in on a school board tilted against his designs. Aside from a successful campaign to bring prayer back to school board meetings, the former senator hasn't made any real attempts to rock the boat. He's even voted with the majority a few times, opposite his buddy Ray Toler and his apparent brother-from-another-mother David Engelman. But, it appears that Ravenel was saving his energy. He's been on the attack on this budget since the very first numbers indicated a $10 million climb in operating costs. "Your projected tax increase will fall most heavily on Charleston's businesses and rental properties," he says. "It's going to be fairly severe." Ravenel has brought in numbers from across the state to question the district's budget, made subtle jabs at the cost of low-performing schools, and asked a flood of questions, varying in usefulness, as seatmate Hillery Douglas gestures to Chairwoman Nancy Cook behind him, asking her to move things along. The good news for Arthur: He's got a convert, or at least a temporary convert, in Moody, who voted against the budget with the three amigos last week. The bad news for Arthur: It's going to be a hard sell to wrestle another vote against the budget from the remaining five members. But the budget season has lit a fire under Ravenel and we bet the money fight won't end with the final vote on June 18. And, if Douglas is successful in the North Charlesotn mayor race, Ravenel may have another shot at the majority after all.

Interesting extras

• The district is budgeting $195,000 in contributions and donations from local parent groups and other nonprofits.

• There's $439,000 for fine arts and physical education programs for much-needed instruments and equipment.

• Postage costs are expected to rise more than 50 percent to $77,000. While the 2-cent climb in postage costs is tied in to that hike, the majority comes from staff who have lumped their postage costs in with other supplies in the past and are finally getting around to dividing them out.

• Money budgeted for library books and magazines will fall by more than $65,000, but it's because past budgets for those supplies were driven by the district. This year's budget was based on librarian requests.

• Food sale revenues are expected to climb more than 7 percent next year, led largely by $1.2 million more in "specialty sales to pupils." While candy and soda come to mind, the increase is tied to a broader approach at attracting students to the cafeteria, including promotional campaigns and new menu items like Asian food, "sizzlin'" salads, and pita wraps.


A Second Buist?

An unlikely school board alliance has formed to take the debate over high-performing downtown schools beyond Buist Academy. Arthur Ravenel Jr. and Toya Hampton-Green made a proposal last month to add programs to Memminger Elementary in hopes of mimicking the success at Buist, a crown jewel in the district's magnet program.

"I really feel like all the schools in the district could benefit," Hampton-Green says. If successful, the program could be expanded to other schools.

The district most recently did a tepid review of the Buist's admission policy, deciding in the end to make no changes other than promising a more vigilant address verification process. Those changes came as national attention focused on parents fibbing about addresses to score prized spots reserved for downtown students. There had been talk last fall about potentially moving Buist to a larger building or replicating the program somewhere else.

Memminger has no enrollment barriers, as opposed to Buist's complicated lottery and evaluation process. The principal at Memminger was previously a vice principal at Buist for three years. The added programs at Memminger would require a new assistant principal, a full-time nurse, full-time P.E. teacher, full-time art teacher, new Latin and Spanish teachers, a full-time guidance counselor, and an updated media center. The new staff and resources would cost less than $350,000.

Federal officials are reviewing the district's policy involving magnet programs after complaints that Charleston Progressive, another peninsula magnet program largely serving the black community, wasn't getting the same district resources as Buist Academy. Some argue that the resources proposed for Memminger should be given to Charleston Progressive first. Hampton-Green says that no final decisions have been made and those suggestions can be vetted during this summer's community input meetings on peninsula schools.

While it may be too late to find the money needed this year, Hampton-Green is optimistic that the program will be budgeted next year if the money can be found.

"It's a matter of figuring out this budget," she says of the resolve of the rest of the council. "It's not that the will's not there to do it."


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