Eight S.C. school districts – including three in the Midlands – will have to cut an average of $1.5 million from their operating budgets because state lawmakers eliminated a pot of education money in the state’s budget.
Last year, lawmakers changed the formula for how school districts receive state money. The changes meant some districts would get less money. But lawmakers protected those school districts from cuts by giving them “hold harmless money” – money that prevented them from having cuts.
But this year, as lawmakers haggled over a $60 million tax cut for small businesses and a $300 million port expansion project in Charleston, something had to go. That something turned out to be the $20 million in hold harmless money lawmakers had set aside for those school districts.
“We are just disappointed that this was basically a cut to our district that was never talked about,” said Patrick White, chairman of the York 4 School District, which was cut $1.2 million. “This was some deal brokered in the back rooms late at night and unfortunately the .... money was some sacred cow that was given up at the altar to make the Senate and the House members work out right.”
State lawmakers did give school districts an extra $156 million in state money that, combined with federal and other funds, equals a $404 million increase for public education.
“Even those districts that don’t get the hold harmless (money) are still coming out pretty well this year,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York and the chairman of the Senate Finance subcommittee that oversees the K-12 budget.
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais also asked lawmakers to eliminate the hold harmless money.
“(The formula) is supposed to consider the wealth of a school district, the ability of a school district to pay for its finances,” said Jay Ragley, Zais’ spokesman. “Add in a hold harmless, some would say that’s kind of defeating the purpose.”
The state’s largest school district, Greenville County, also was the hardest hit, losing $2.7 million. In the Midlands, Lexington-Richland 5 lost $2 million. Lexington 1 lost $1.5 million and Richland 2 lost $1.2 million.
Lexington-Richland 5 did not plan on receiving the $2 million, so leaders did not include the money in their budget, according to district spokeswoman Michelle Foster. Lexington 1 did plan on using its $1.5 million, but spokeswoman Mary Beth Hill said the district will likely dip into its reserves.
But Richland 2 will likely have some decisions to make. The school district has not approved its budget yet, choosing instead to see what state lawmakers did. But they had planned on using their $1.2 million. Without it, the school board will have to decide whether to include some new programs – such as hiring elementary school teachers to teach foreign languages, according to district spokesman Ken Blackstone. The district has had these teaching positions before, but eliminated them because of budget cuts.
“From a percentage standpoint (the money) is a small percentage, but certainly when you’re talking about taking a $1 million hit in your budget, that’s a significant amount of money,” Blackstone said.
State lawmakers had to spend an extra $36 million on special education this year to make up for the loss of federal funding. The federal government is penalizing South Carolina because it says the state violated federal law by not spending enough money on special education. Zais disagrees, and has appealed the decision. But the U.S. Department of Education plans to take away the state’s $36 million for special education beginning Oct. 1.
Lawmakers said they chose between the special education money and the hold harmless money. They chose special education.
Scott Price, general counsel for the S.C. Association of School Boards, said he agrees the special education money was more important. But he criticized lawmakers for paying for a $60 million tax cut for small businesses instead of finding money to help school districts.
“Knowing the obligations we have out there ... I might have been less considerate of giving tax cuts,” he said.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.