Originally created 05/18/98

Plan to reduce class size would cost $1 billion



COLUMBIA -- After repeated criticism from people like Darla Moore and Rick Barnes about South Carolina's education system, senators want an ambitious plan to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

But can South Carolina afford the $1 billion needed for this plan?

That's what it could cost to build enough classrooms for the 5,300 new teachers that senators think are needed to fix the public schools.

House and Senate education negotiators have only about a month left to come to an agreement on conflicting plans to overhaul the school system.

In addition to grading school systems, the Senate also wants to make sure no teacher has more than 15 students in kindergarten through grade three.

By shrinking class sizes, each teacher would have more time to help out students. In many schools, teachers have to be responsible for as many as 30 students.

But can it be done? Each new teacher will need a classroom. Using an estimate of 33 classrooms per school -- the average in Richland County -- South Carolina would need 160 new schools.

New elementary schools in Richland County cost about $7 million apiece. That makes hiring 5,300 new teachers statewide by fall 2001 cost at least $1 billion, though the cost might be less since some districts already have space for more classes.

Not that the new schools aren't needed. When Chester Floyd became Berkeley County's superintendent a year ago, he found 350 temporary structures.

"It's absolutely ludicrous," he said. "There's a tremendous need for state-of-the-art facilities."

The construction cost doesn't even consider the cost of new teachers. Senate budget analysts estimate hiring that many new teachers will cost taxpayers an extra $229 million annually.

And if lawmakers find the money, can schools hire a small army of new kindergarten teachers by August?

Joyce Abel, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said enough qualified teachers are available. "The districts that can pay the most won't have any trouble finding teachers," Ms. Abel said. "It's the others that we ought to be worried about."

The Senate has decided to partly fund the money needed for this program by paying for construction projects with an $100 million bond bill.

Ms. Moore, who gave $25 million to the University of South Carolina, said the state is foolish not to borrow money when interest rates are low, the state's credit rating is excellent and its needs are great.

"If you want an argument in favor of the bond bill, all you need to have done is listen to Darla Moore," said Senate Majority Leaders John Land of Manning. "We have needs to meet now."

GOP Gov. David Beasley and House Republicans say the borrowing proposal violates state rules designed to rein in spending. Mr. Beasley has threatened to veto the plan if it emerges from a House-Senate budget negotiating committee.

But the Senate borrowing plan would fit well within the state's credit limit.

South Carolina currently has $1 billion in general debt. Paying interest and principal on those outstanding loans costs $143.5 million. That's a little more than 3 percent of the state's budget but short of the 5 percent limit on debt payments set by the state constitution.

"They should borrow when they invest in something that will earn a return like education or infrastructure," said Steven Mann, a University of South Carolina economics professor. "If you generate more cash than what you borrow, it makes sense to borrow in those circumstances."

South Carolina would pay about 4.9 percent interest on a 15-year general obligation bond, Deputy State Treasurer John Pownall said.