Senate Finance Committee gives school districts more flexibility

Help is on the way for struggling school districts. The South Carolina Senate’s Finance Committee has approved a bill to help districts during the recession. Some districts that already have tight budgets say they are being crippled under the pressure of on-going state budget cuts. State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex has urged lawmakers to pass the legislation as quickly as possible.The bill would allow districts to furlough teachers, and give districts an extra month to hand out teacher employment contracts. It would also allow an increase in class size and a reduction in the salaries of retired teachers who return to the classroom.  Cherokee County Superintendent of Education Bill James says, “I think this committee was trying to get the language where it helps schools do the things they needed to but, by no means, ended up putting limitations or freedoms that would do anything other than the intent of the law.”
Molly Spearman directs the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. She says, “All the school’s superintendents are out on the front lines dealing with the downturn in the economy in the school districts.” She went on to say that, “this piece of legislation will give them the flexibility that they feel they need to really be able to ensure that jobs back in those local communities with those principals, teachers, custodians, are all able to be in place during this difficult time.”
Spearman says the legislation means different levels of help to different districts because they’re all at different levels of need. According to Spearman some will, “have healthy fund balances that will help them survive.”
On the flipside, “there are others where their fund balances are near zero. So of course those areas are having to be creative,” she said. “This stimulus money as well as the flexibility is crucial to them. All of the districts need it, some more than others, but I don’t know of a single district in the state that doesn’t need some flexibility to be able to make it through the next year.”
Spearman says the bill will give each district the flexibility it needs, where each one needs it most. “The largest portion of the budget in almost any company and certainly for school districts is the employee salaries and employee benefits,” Speaman stated. “I think this flexibility will allow them to look–if they have to furlough folks or negotiate contracts with retired teachers or if they have to reduce class size or they have to move money from one program to the other–this gives them the flexibility.
“The big issue, though, is about jobs.”
The legislation would also allow districts to elect to keep older textbooks for a year or two rather than buy new ones and would allow the state education department to buy inexpensive diesel fuel for buses instead of the more expensive bio diesel. The full senate is not meeting today but may take up the bill as early as next week. The House has already passed similar legislation.