S.C. schools chief criticized over funding requests

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COLUMBIA — South Carolina Education Superintendent Mick Zais was chastised Wednesday by House Democrats for not seeking more money for teacher pay.

Zais asked a Ways and Means panel not to cut a key funding stream for classrooms but did not ask for an increase. The so-called base student cost primarily pays teacher salaries. The current per-student allocation is $1,880 because of recession budget cuts, though a state funding formula calls for it to be $2,790 this year.

Noting the economy remains uncertain, Zais told the budget-writing panel his budget request for 2012-13 is largely unchanged from the current budget, with a few exceptions. That included $14.5 million to cover student increases, to prevent a drop in base student cost.

“These dollars go to the classroom, and that’s where our priorities should be,” Zais said.

With a puzzled expression, Rep. Michael Anthony, D-Union, asked, “Why, then, as state superintendent of our public schools, are you not asking for an increase to catch up?”

House Minority Leader Harry Ott grilled Zais, repeatedly asking whether he’s telling teachers they should go a fourth year without a raise.

The Republican superintendent said he’s not sure the money is available, and legislators can provide more than he is requesting.

Budget advisors expect an additional $913.4 million in one-time and recurring revenue because of surplus from the fiscal year that closed June 30, along with more money coming in this fiscal year than legislators budgeted, plus continued growth. But required increases – including property tax relief, health care and reserve funds – gobble up most of that money.

It would cost $553 million to restore the base student cost to $2,790, according to the state budget office.

Ott said the Republican-controlled Legislature is highly unlikely to put any more into public education than Zais seeks.

“Your job is to fight for what you think is important for education. You have to take a position,” said Ott, D-St. Matthews. “You get to write your budget for whatever you want. You are the man in charge of the request. We find the money.”

Teachers are usually paid based on their years in the classroom and level of degree. But legislators have suspended the step increases for the last several years. Zais said the Legislature could choose to return to the minimum salary schedule.

If no money’s added to that main funding source, the raises’ cost will fall on districts, said Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. She said she’s disappointed that “the person elected to champion public schools did not ask for an increase.”

Some districts are still requiring teachers to take unpaid leave, she said.

This school year, 40 of 85 districts were able to fund step increases on their own, according to a state report.

Zais’ largest request for additional money – $36 million – would buy enough new school buses to comply with the state’s 15-year replacement cycle, so the agency can get buses from the mid-’80s off the road. All but five of the state’s 201 buses that date from 1984 through 1987 are for students with disabilities.

He also sought an additional $5 million to keep buses fueled and running. With two-thirds of the agency’s fleet more than 15 years old, the buses are expensive to maintain and not fuel-efficient, Zais said.

Last year, the Legislature designated up to $12 million in unclaimed lottery money toward replacing them – overriding Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto – but the money depends on how many prizes go unclaimed. So far, the agency has received just $2.2 million, which will buy buses for the School for the Deaf and the Blind in Spartanburg, said Zais spokesman Jay Ragley.

The last time legislators designated money for school buses was 2007, when they approved replacing the statewide fleet every 15 years. That would require buying nearly 380 yearly. But that law has been ignored amid the economic downturn.

Zais recommends closing an incentive program for teachers earning national certification, which provides an annual bonus of either $5,000 or $7,500 – depending on when they applied – for the 10-year life of the certificate. Nothing would change for teachers already in the program.

Zais said studies indicate the expensive program does not improve student learning, but rather that already-excellent teachers pursue the additional certification.

Legislators’ previous attempts to close the program have failed.

BOARD RESCINDS RULE

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Board of Education on Wednesday rescinded a rule requiring the elected state superintendent to provide a monthly report on multi-million-dollar grants available to schools.

The vote ends the threat that the state board will sue Superintendent Mick Zais. Both he and the board’s new chairman, Dennis Thompson, say they’re putting the squabble in the past and moving forward cooperatively.

The rule approved last November would have required the Republican schools chief to report on any federal or private grant exceeding $10 million for which South Carolina schools are eligible, and to justify his decision on whether to apply.

Zais argued the board has no authority over him and that he reports to voters, not the board.

– Associated Press


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