AIKEN - Money is the difference between the rich and the poor, but in the cash-strapped Aiken County public schools, a critical lack of greenbacks has become the great equalizer between academically elite pupils and problem children.
A month ago, school authorities put five of the district's six alternative schools - designed to rehabilitate pupils with discipline problems or learning difficulties - on a list of programs that could be cut to save money.
At the same time, they placed the International Baccalaureate Program, which is aimed at fine-tuning advanced pupils with a curriculum taught in identical programs worldwide, far lower on the cut list. They hope to made do by halving the $800,000 price tag of the program, offered at North Augusta and Aiken high schools, instead of eliminating it.
That helped the smart get smarter while setting up another hurdle for pupils already looking at their last chance to stay in school.
With a $12.5 million hole in the budget that is twice as large as county officials expected it to be, that list has been thrown out the window, though, placing both programs at equal risk as board members prepare to hold a special meeting Tuesday to talk about the district's financial woes.
"I don't want any program cut," said Linda Eldridge, the county school superintendent. "I don't want to lose the alternative schools. I don't want to lose the International Baccalaureate Program - that's known worldwide."
Those words provide little comfort to Mary Eleanor Wood Smith, who teaches math and science at one of the alternative schools on the chopping block. Her financial livelihood depends on teaching 30 sixth- through 10th-graders who have repeatedly broken the school's conduct code and have been placed in her class to avoid expulsion.
"A lot of them come with baggage. Some of them moved around a lot. Some were sick in grammar school and missed basic skills. Others are just weak in math or reading," Mrs. Smith said.
Although the school board hasn't voted yet on cuts for next year, the five alternative schools - one in each of five geographical divisions of the county school district - probably will be combined into one to save money, Mrs. Smith said. The five schools cost $500,000 a year and handle 150 pupils instructed by eight teachers.
Pupils from the shuttered schools probably will be sent to Pinecrest Center in Aiken, which has an alternative school called the Last Chance Academy, funded by state money. For now, its financial future is solid, Dr. Eldridge said.
The same can't be said for the rest of the school district. The picture is so bleak, school officials said, they can't guarantee that the board won't ask for a tax increase, cut the number of teaching positions, scale back athletic programs or increase the number of pupils in each class.
"I just have such strong feelings for the board members because they are faced with the terrible decision of impacting programs that are innovative and prestigious and offer such great opportunities for our students. But they have no other choice," Dr. Eldridge said.
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