Tie vote yields no view on attendance area bill

AIKEN --- Facing huge budget cuts, Aiken County school board members will offer no opinion on state legislation that would give them power to reduce the number of attendance areas.

Introduced by Sens. Greg Ryberg and Shane Massey, S. 442 would change the wording of current legislation that requires five attendance areas in Aiken County -- no more and no less.

The local bill would change wording from "shall" to "may" and give the school board more control over the areas. The added control would allow the board to reduce or add to the number of area offices.

The board tied 4-4 on a motion not to support the bill. Members John Wesley Hightower, Levi Green, Dr. John Bass and Donna Moore Wesby voted in favor. Keith Liner, Ray Fleming, Richard Hazen and Chairwoman Christine Harkins voted against it.

The tie meant the board wouldn't offer support or dissent for the bill, Dr. Harkins said. Vice Chairwoman Rosemary English was absent.

With the school district facing at least $9 million in budget cuts for the next school year, the change could allow the board to realign or eliminate area offices.

The salaries of the five area assistant superintendents total more than $471,000 for this school year. Comptroller Tray Traxler told Mr. Ryberg that eliminating those five offices, which have a total of 15 employees, would save $985,000.

Dr. Harkins said she supported the bill because the school board should control decisions about the organization of the district, but supporting the bill didn't mean the board supports eliminating offices.

"It's my understanding that next year will be even gloomier," she said. "There's no flexibility now, and we won't even be able to make this decision (of eliminating areas) if legislation fails."

Last week Superintendent Beth Everitt shifted additional duties to Area 4 Assistant Superintendent Joy Shealy and Area 5 Assistant Superintendent Randy Stowe because 17 jobs were cut from the district office.

Dr. Stowe said the additional responsibilities are a "reasonable way of addressing" budget cuts because he and Mrs. Shealy have fewer students and schools to oversee than other area offices. The Area 1 office represents the largest portion of the district, with about 40 percent of the student population.

Mrs. Wesby said upcoming community meetings on the budget will provide a perfect opportunity to get feedback on the bill.

"It seems the public expects us to do this (reduce areas) as a board when we've never discussed it," she said. "That might not be the right decision."

The bill is now before the local House delegation. School district attorney Bill Burkhalter said it could move in a few weeks or drag on.

Reach Julia Sellers at (706) 823-3424 or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com.