Official at Florence forum says law hampers school financing
FLORENCE, S.C. – The financing of public education took center stage at the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center Thursday evening.
State Sen. John Matthews; Dr. Delia Allen, a Riley Institute education consultant; Scott Price, executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association; and Emily Heatwole, communications and governmental affairs director of the South Carolina Department of Education, addressed members of the public Thursday evening at an educational symposium organized by state Rep. Terry Alexander and the League of Women Voters of the Florence Area.
State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman was supposed to attend, but Heatwole attended in her place.
Heatwole provided an overview of the recent, post 2006 changes to financing education. According to her, a law was passed that prevented school boards from taxing owner-occupied property to fund school operating costs. The law, however, does allow taxing of owner-occupied property to fund the payment of bonds.
The new law has created and exacerbated problems in school districts both large and small across the state of South Carolina.
“The Education Finance Act, which has been in existence since 1974, is predicated on a relationship between the state [funding] and the local [funding] and the local’s ability to pay,” Heatwole said. “It does have a mandated match. When the local taxpayers are contributing less to that local match, especially in districts that are growing in population, it is creating some significant hardships.”
Smaller, rural districts receive a larger portion of funding from the federal government, according to Heatwole. The federal funding comes at a cost: a lot of strings are attached to the funding. This leaves these districts unable to secure the resources they need to operate effectively.
“First thing you got to know is that 60 percent of the wealth is located in 14 counties,” Matthews said. “If you live in those counties, you got an option to grow and do some local things. If you don’t live in those counties, then you’re in trouble.”
Matthews added that poor school districts do not have the capacity to put the financial means into their schools that the wealthier districts do. He also called for constituents to take out a blank piece of paper and determine what an ideal school should look like, start from there, and fund it appropriately.
Allen said it was necessary to determine the level of funding necessary to bring all schools up to an acceptable or excellent level. She added that South Carolina was ranked high in equality of funding as the state provides funding for children in poverty and those in gifted programs.
“You also have to look at the district level,” Allen said. “I would challenge districts to improve — to look at how you allocate your resources.”
Allen also mentioned school sharing of services between districts as potential ways of saving funds.
Moderator Gavin Jackson used Allen’s discussion of the sharing of services to ask Price about the school board prospective on school consolidation and the sharing of services.
Price said when discussing consolidation, it was important to remember that smaller schools are often the lifeblood of their community.
“We need to look at first of all consolidation of services,” Price said. “Especially technology the way it is, we need to do a better job.”
Consolidating services would allow districts to save funds.
Consolidating school districts can be a difficult process as residents of consolidated districts are attached to schools that may close in the consolidation and, in certain cases, taxes may rise to pay for the additional school district and potential debt being added.
Currently the school board association supports consolidations that begin at the local level.
Matthews, a Democrat, represents Senate District 39, which consists of portions of Berkeley, Calhoun, Colleton, Dorchester, and Orangeburg counties. He also serves as a ranking member on the Senate Education Committee.
Alexander is a Democrat representing House District 59, which includes a portion of northern Florence County and eastern Darlington County. He has served as House District 59 representative since 2008. He previously served on the Florence County Council from 1990 to 2006 as the council member from District 3. He is also on the House Education Committee.