Originally created 10/12/03

Rural county suffers budget cuts



MCCORMICK, S.C. - With a note of defiance in her voice and the hint of an evangelist's sense of pace, Catherine Callaham sees redemption rather than wreckage in the two-year stretch of state budget cuts that have scythed through public school districts across South Carolina.

A 33-year veteran of this small, rural county's school system, Mrs. Callaham thinks the loss of money will force parents, teachers and community leaders to do what they used to do - band together to make sure their children get a good education instead of abdicating their responsibility to the state and federal government.

"That's the way it used to be," said Mrs. Callaham, 53, who runs the after-school and adult education programs housed at McCormick Elementary School.

Linda McAdams, who lost her $38,000-a-year post as a vocational teacher at McCormick High School after 13 years because of state budget cuts, sees trauma, chaos and decline, not challenge and rejuvenation.

"It's not a stable atmosphere," said Mrs. McAdams, 55, a mother of three who learned she would lose her job in April and opened a custom tailoring and home decorating shop in Greenwood last week.

Front-line educators such as Mrs. Callaham and Mrs. McAdams are at the sharp end of the fiscal policies that have forced school board members and administrators to raise property taxes, cut summer school and other remedial programs, give pink slips to teachers and administrators or leave positions unfilled.

Because sales tax collections continue to fall below projections, education officials are warning school districts to expect to lose an additional 2 to 5 percent in state money.

Facing multimillion budget gaps from six rounds of across-the-board cuts that sliced money to public schools by as much as $329 million, wealthier districts such as Aiken County's have been able to avoid firing teachers and cutting core programs by raising property taxes and tapping cash reserves.

Poorer districts, lacking the deep-pocketed tax base, have either had to eliminate teaching and staff positions or siphon money earmarked for replacing aging classrooms and other projects.

State budget cuts to education have resulted in a massive shift in South Carolina's tax burden to the shoulders of local property owners, said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education.

According to the school boards association survey, 51 of the 76 responding districts raised their millage.

To help close an $8.5 million budget gap, Aiken County's school board increased its rate by 18 mills - the second consecutive double-digit boost - while the three districts in Barnwell County each asked for 10 mills.

The major worry of state and local educators is that budget cuts are punishing pupils who need tutoring and remedial programs.

"Teachers are working extremely hard to fill the gaps and sustain performance, but I worry about them wearing out," said Dr. Frank Roberson, the associate superintendent for instruction for the Aiken County school district. "We will not be able to sustain academic performance if we continue to see cuts."

School districts have exhausted their budget balancing options, said Dr. Roberson. Additional tax increases will cause a revolt among property owners. The next round of cuts will slice into the meat of public education - teachers and core curricula.

"There has to be a point you can't go anymore, and I think we're there," Dr. Roberson said.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.