Costs rise for background checks

Volunteering in many public schools has more than tripled in price.

This school year, the State Law Enforcement Division has begun charging school districts $25 per criminal background check of school volunteers. That could include parents who serve as field trip chaperones, community tutors, lunch buddies and nonteaching sports coaches.

Historically, many districts have only paid $8 per background check.

"This increased charge really discourages our schools from having parents and community members volunteer in our schools," said Mark Bounds, deputy superintendent for the state Department of Education. "That runs counter to what we want to see happening. We want more involvement, not less."

SLED officials say they're just trying to get the state's school districts to follow the law consistently.

Under state rules, SLED cannot charge school districts for background checks of teachers and substitute teachers. The agency must charge $8 for checks of mentors and bus drivers. Checks of all other school volunteer are $25.

But a recent internal SLED review of background checks showed the rules were not being uniformly followed.

"There's been a lot of confusion and inconsistencies among schools on how much they're supposed to pay," said SLED's Capt. Andy Jordan, noting SLED could have done a better job of informing and administering the rates.

"Some (schools) were doing all checks for free. Some were paying $8 for everyone. Some were paying $25. It was all over the gamut," Jordan said. "What we're trying to do is get everyone to follow statute."

Overall, Jordan said the stepped-up enforcement will bring consistency but hurt most schools financially.

"For the majority of school districts, it's going to be a (cost) increase," Jordan said.

Districts, reeling from state budget cuts, say they are concerned about how they will pay for checks that have unexpectedly increased.

"With more than 3,000 registered volunteers in our districts, this is a big deal for us," said Mary Anne Byrd, spokeswoman for Kershaw County schools. "We're still trying to figure out what to do."

In Richland 2, where about 2,000 new people have begun volunteering in the past three years, the price increase could mean fewer field trips and reductions in student tutoring programs.

"If SLED would compromise and establish a flat $12.50 fee, that would help tremendously," said Theresa Riley, spokeswoman for Richland 2.

Lexington 1 and Lexington-Richland 5 say they already pay $25 for background checks, and the new enforcement won't affect them much.

But districts like Richland 1 may reduce their volunteer force.

Last year, the district budgeted $15,000 for background checks of volunteers. The district stopped accepting volunteers in February because the fund had run out after about 1,500 checks, said Katy Watkins, the district's volunteer and mentoring program coordinator.

"I am tremendously worried about what's going to happen now," Watkins said.

One possibility is for schools to run fewer background checks. State law only requires checks on instructors.

But most school districts conduct them on nearly everyone who interacts with students.

"In today's world, it's too dangerous not to," Byrd said.

The state Department of Education has already drafted a proviso for lawmakers to consider in January, making the rate $8.

But that would hurt cash-strapped SLED, which also has taken budget hits.

Molly Spearman, director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, said she is sympathetic to both schools and SLED.

"These budget cuts are getting down now to bone necessities, hurting law enforcement and schools," she said. "I hope we can work something out between the two agencies. The background checks need to be done. Hopefully, there's room for a compromise."