COLUMN: Aiken schools earn high marks: Will we keep them?
This summer, the S.C. Department of Education released the results of its 2012 school and district assessments (“Area schools receive letter grades,” the Aiken Standard, Aug 3). The Aiken County School District received an overall grade of B, meaning the district’s performance exceeds the state’s expectations (www.ed.sc.gov/data/esea). As commendable as this is, this district can do better. I describe how you can help below.
I have been a financial professional for over 30 years and presently serve as an elected member of the Aiken County School Board. Naturally, I look at the numbers. Thirty-eight school districts scored higher on the ESEA assessments than Aiken County. Thirty-six of those spend more per student than we do. The conclusion is that Aiken County schools are providing a better return on investment on operating costs than most districts across the state.
This return on investment speaks well of the professionals within Aiken schools and of the committed and thoughtful stewardship of funds by my colleagues on the school board. Independent evidence of this stewardship is shown by the recent upgrade of Aiken County school bond ratings from A to AA (the highest possible rating is AAA.)
So, what else needs attention? The most complex aspect of school funding is facility construction, expansion and renovation. In my view the options open to the citizens of Aiken County have been unnecessarily limited by state-level legislation. Let me explain.
The accompanying chart shows the (rounded) scores for the district average ESEA score, the average score for our recently rebuilt or refurbished schools, and the average score for those schools in greatest need of upgrade or replacement. Note how the schools requiring significant upgrade or replacement have a notably lower average score than our newer schools, lowering the district’s average.
While there is more to attaining an A grade than facilities, my 16 year association with Aiken County schools has convinced me that facilities influence education. School facilities are the students’ learning environment, the workplace of our professional teachers, and the infrastructure support to information-age education strategies. Facilities are foundational to the activities taking place within them.
Under current restrictions of law the only certain source of funds for facilities improvement a small pool of money that must pay for maintenance as well. To use these maintenance funds for facilities improvement would deplete these funds quickly. One option is to ask state lawmakers for assistance. But this isn’t the only option.
Presently, 22 counties in South Carolina are allowed by the state to collect a penny sales tax. Aiken County is not allowed to do so, which is a shame since 34 percent of sales tax in Aiken County is paid by people who do not live here. While there is no ideal solution I believe spreading the burden among these workers and visitors via a penny sales tax has merit.
Few receive help by sitting idly by hoping someone will notice their need. You can help by contacting your state representative to give local citizens more options in facilities funding, including the penny sales tax. Obviously a bond referendum is still among our options. If you are a long-term thinker, tell your representative you prefer a referendum to lock-in the remarkably low interest rates. Whatever your position, now is the time to have the discussion and grapple with difficult issues. Chime in.
I would also like to invite you to attend a meeting of your school board to get a sense of the challenges facing our schools. The board wants and appreciates your participation. Pithy quips in the TalkBack section are amusing, but fall short of the needed reasoned debate about the future of primary and secondary education executed in our county.
Sir Edmund Gosse, an English poet, wrote: “The future comes like an unwelcome guest.” Please join your Aiken County School Board in creating the future instead of being forced to react to it. Find our meeting schedule at school-board.acps.schoolfusion.us. We welcome your participation.
Richard Hazen was elected to the Aiken County School Board in 2008. Before that, he served on the Area 1 Advisory Council for the school system. He and his wife Kathy are the parents of three sons who are products of the Aiken County school system.