Looking ahead to 2011: Aiken County Schools

When Dr. Beth Everitt arrived as the new Aiken School District superintendent in January 2008, her immediate goal was to get to know the community and schools. She was already aware that the South Carolina General Assembly was not following its own funding formula for per-pupil allocations. Further, lawmakers had set up a sales tax increase - in effect introducing an unstable revenue source to replace the more consistent property tax on owner-occupied homes. Everitt soon found some areas of stellar academic performance, but saw other areas that needed assistance. Later that year she and her district administrators began to introduce new initiatives - expanded student assessments, principal training, data-driven instruction, a major literacy focus. Those efforts haven't stopped, but initial state budget cuts began during Everitt's first year and have persisted since then. Federal stimulus funds that began in the 2009-10 school year and continued in the current budget year helped postpone further cuts. But the federal allocation will end in June, taking about $11 million out of the current budget. Another federal appropriation of $143 million to the state isn't expected to arrive at all; the state did not meet a required threshold in funding higher education in order to receive those funds. State legislators must find ways to cut up to $1 billion in general operations spending next year, and school districts can expect further reductions. The Aiken County Board of Education held a "Budget 101" session last month, giving an overview of the budget process and expectations for next year; only a handful of community residents attended the meeting. After the administration compiles and evaluates budget input, another budget work session will be held March 15, with a preliminary budget presented to the School Board April 19. The rumors about the budget have already started, however, such as the district preparing to cut 20 percent of its teachers. "That's not true," Everitt said. "Nothing has happened yet, except that we're starting the budget process early. We'll look at every department, piece by piece. But we'll protect schools and classrooms as much as possible." When the original state cuts started arriving with increasing frequency in 2008, "we budgeted conservatively early on," said Everitt. "As much as we hated it, we took furlough days and eliminated a number of positions here at the district office." The cuts in 2009 included the elimination of the popular International Baccalaureate and deciding not to renew the contracts of 57 working retirees, both teachers and administrators. A few were later rehired but others got jobs in other school districts. In the current fiscal year, no administrators, teachers and staffers got salary increases or the "step" increase for an additional year of service. The cautious budgeting, however, did allow the district to avoid furloughs in 2010-11, Everitt said. The district also used some stimulus funds and carryover funds to replenish its contingency funds. A portion of that fund balance could allow the district to offset some budget cuts in 2011-12. "We don't know how large a cut we might get," Everitt said, "and there's no guarantee we won't get another one in 2012." The district needs to keep people with continuing contracts, she said. If necessary, teachers with one year of experience can be let go without cause, "but that's not how we should be making decisions," Everitt said. "We need teachers who are effective and bring excitement and engagement to the classroom." The funding spent on administration was scrutinized earlier this year before the $236 million construction bond referendum that was soundly defeated by voters in May. But the percentage of funds that goes to all administrators, including principals, is just over 7 percent, less than the state average for districts roughly the size of Aiken's, Everitt said. "Many have more administrators, and the salaries of our employees are lower," she said. Morale among district employees is an issue, said Everitt. Lost wages and uncertainty about future budgets inevitably will take a toll. "But I've seen teachers in the classroom who are doing their jobs and, in most cases, doing them very well," said Everitt. "Yet there's a sinking feeling in the whole state from educators over the budget issues." State lawmakers have authorized districts to have more flexibility in how they spent the funds they do have. That helps, but any proviso put in place without funds to support it should go away, Everitt said. As educators prepare for the tough budget year, the school district can't cut good reading instruction efforts. Everitt said. Teachers and administrators are working hard on a new program with USC Aiken and Aiken Technical College to enhance instruction in Algebra 1, a crucial gateway class for younger high school students. The district must continue to support kids who are homeless and hungry, Everitt said, but the school system is reaching only a fraction of those who need help. Still, "I can't visit the schools and not be optimistic," Everitt said. "There are so many great things going on. People don't go into education for financial wealth, but because they can make a difference. But our staff deserves a living wage." Contact Rob Novit at rnovit@aikenstandard.com.