Republican Gov. Mark Sanford faces a deadline today to decide whether he will refuse $700 million in federal stimulus cash, primarily for education over two years, which he says would be better spent paying down bond debt.
Mr. Sanford says lawmakers are stoking fears and that state Senate budget writers aren't using other stimulus cash in their budget plans, which makes the consequences of his not taking some Washington money appear more dire.
He reiterated he won't take the stimulus cash unless it's used to pay down state bond debt.
"I understand the issue of trying to pay down debt. But it's akin to trying to pay off your mortgage while your kids are starving," said Frank Morgan, superintendent of schools in rural Kershaw County, which educates 13,000 children.
State education officials said that the reality is 5,200 school employees, including 2,700 teachers, will lose their jobs without the stimulus money. There are about 50,000 teachers statewide.
Even with the money, state schools chief Jim Rex said, districts will still need to eliminate 1,600 jobs.
Mr. Sanford says legislators can write an adequate budget without the money and dismisses a growing chorus as victims of political scare tactics.
"In fairness to the teachers, I would be frightened, too," the governor said a day after hundreds of educators rallied outside the Statehouse chanting "Pink slip Sanford."
Detractors counter that Mr. Sanford is trying to raise his national profile for a 2012 presidential bid and push an impractical libertarian philosophy that includes using taxpayer money to pay for private schools. He disputes that.
At issue is a portion of the $2.8 billion in stimulus cash intended for the recession-battered state, which had the nation's second-highest unemployment rate in February.
Ted Zee, a father from Lexington, brought his 10-year-old daughter to a rally at the Statehouse this week to protest Mr. Sanford's decision.
"I don't want her school to have 35 kids in a class," Mr. Zee said.
South Carolina's on-time graduation rate ranks among the nation's lowest. Officials say it's already tough to improve in a state with an ever-growing poverty problem. Nearly a quarter of schools statewide are in extreme poverty, with 90 percent or more students considered poor..
District officials said high schools won't be able to offer as many classes, and those with low enrollment, such as honor classes, could be among the first to go.