Originally created 03/10/99

School board rejects plan for funding



AIKEN -- A sharply divided Aiken County school board voted 5-4 Tuesday not to take money from a contingency fund to pay for smaller classes despite pressure to reduce class sizes by fall.

Board members said they'll wait to see whether the South Carolina Legislature gives them money first.

Administrators were anticipating a reduction in class sizes in kindergarten programs for 5-year-olds. The current ratio is one teacher per 30 kindergartners. But bills to cut that ratio to one teacher per 20 kindergartners haven't passed in the state House and Senate.

School Board Chairman John Bradley and members Art Hadden, Brent Rankin, Andrew Yaun and Jack Hunter voted not to take the money from the contingency fund. Board members Inez Williamson, Rosemary English, Larry Murphy and Thomas Goforth voted in favor.

Gov. Jim Hodges and state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, who won election last year on promises to improve schools, have pushed the Legislature to provide more money to reduce pupil-teacher ratios and improve facilities in the face of growth.

Not since U.S. Education Secretary Dick Riley's tenure as governor in the 1980s has South Carolina had a fund-matching plan to help local school districts improve buildings.

To have facilities ready for occupancy by mid-August, Aiken County schools officials said they needed about $1.1 million for smaller classes.

Part of that money, $874,000, would have been used to purchase 23 portable kindergarten classrooms for $38,000 a piece. The buildings would have been equipped with restrooms, something not found in most temporary classrooms.

The rest of the money would have gone toward setting up the portable classrooms and buying furniture for them.

Aiken County School District Comptroller Brock Heron told board members the project could have been funded, in part, by $518,525 uncommitted from another account. Another $602,975 could have been taken from contingency.

But board members didn't want to take money from the till when they don't know if the state will give them money. Several school officials are banking on the state coming forward with money.

"I'm uncomfortable spending money we don't have yet," Mr. Bradley said.

The proposal put the school board in a tight spot because members have been aggressive in their efforts to reduce the pupil-to-teacher ratios, particularly in kindergarten through third grades. Mr. Hodges has endorsed the initiative.

Once viewed as a short-term answer to school overcrowding, portables are now familiar fixtures on school grounds across South Carolina.

Chasiti Kirkland covers education for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.