Originally created 12/23/01

Educators weigh in on funds' allocation



AIKEN - Public school officials are nervous that legislators have yet to agree on how they will spend the expected millions to come from the South Carolina lottery.

When the lottery was enacted, lawmakers mandated that the game's proceeds would not replace any general fund money for education.

But this year, the state has been forced to slash its budget, and more cuts are expected in 2002.

Educators are worried legislators will want to use lottery proceeds to make up for the money cut from the budget.

"We've been creamed with the budget cuts we've been getting," Edgefield County Superintendent Sharon Keesley said.

On Jan. 7, the first scratch-off tickets will be sold in the state lottery. The next day, legislators will begin to plan what to do with the money.

"What comes out in the end when politics prevail, who knows," said Jim Benson, the superintendent for Barnwell District 45.

Mr. Benson and other educators insist education should be funded without lottery proceeds as a fallback.

Legislators say most of the lottery's profits after winnings and administrative expenses will go to tuition programs such as the LIFE scholarship, which gives eligible students $3,000 per year and is similar to Georgia's HOPE scholarship.

About 3 percent would go to the state's school systems.

But that plan was a gentleman's agreement that has been thrown out, according to Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The committee will determine the future of the legislation's fine points.

"It no longer exists," Mr. Harrell said of the gentleman's agreement. "Other than the LIFE scholarships, I believe we are starting over now."

When Gov. Jim Hodges proposed the lottery, he pushed for the money to be spent on technology, with an estimated $45 million going to new computers and software in classrooms.

But several area school officials said technology is not their top priority.

In Edgefield County, making lottery money specific to technology is overkill, Ms. Keesley said.

The county already has a computer for every classroom, teachers with laptops, and computer labs. It also is working with a $6.5 million federal grant to train teachers to use technology.

But Ridge Spring-Monetta High School, which received an unsatisfactory rating on the state's report cards, has only seven Internet-accessible computers in its lab.

The school's principal, Bill Ward, said that although he could always use more funds for technology, most of the lottery money should pay for college scholarships.

Then the state could commit more from the general fund to elementary, middle and high schools, he said.

Allendale County schools, taken over by the state in 1999, want to improve their already limited technology, but administrators say the district has more pressing needs.

"Building construction is the number one need in our district," said Thomas Smith, the county's assistant superintendent.

Other officials want to use money for capital improvements.

Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler wants to spend the first six months of lottery profits to fix the state's aging school bus fleet.

His two-part plan includes using the first six months of revenues - he estimates them to be $67 million - to purchase 1,409 school buses. He would use unclaimed prize money - $5 million to $8 million - in 2002 to purchase more buses.

Rep. Don Smith, R-North Augusta, agrees with the plan.

"We actually have kids on buses I am not sure are really safe," he said.

HOW IT WORKS

Steps from store to classroom:

1. A customer purchases a lottery ticket from a licensed business. Scratch-off games costing $1 or $2 will be available Jan. 7.

2. The cashier rings up the sale on a separate register - specifically for the lottery.

3. Lottery retailers' receipts are deposited into the Education Lottery bank account.

4. South Carolina legislators decide how the money will be spent.

5. The governor signs the funding bill into law.

6. The money is appropriated and distributed.

7. Local school systems use the money - most likely for technology improvements.

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com