COLUMBIA -- School districts, struggling with state budget cuts, may soon get the OK from state lawmakers to furlough teachers and administrators for up to five non-teaching days, increase the numbers of students per class, delay new testing, and use restricted pots of state money for operating costs.
A House resolution, introduced Tuesday by House Ways and Means chairman Rep. Dan Cooper and House Education chairman Rep. Phil Owens would give school districts greater flexibility this school year and next in responding to budget cuts.
Since July, the State Department of Education has been dealt a $334 million blow, 96 percent of which was passed along to local districts.
More cuts are likely, and districts are scrambling to prepare.
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"This is the kind of flexibility school districts have been asking for," said Cooper, who said the resolution has broad support among lawmakers. He anticipates it passing his committee next week.
State Superintendent Jim Rex told senators Wednesday he supports the resolution.
"All of this is about saving teachers' jobs," Rex said.
While some school districts have adequate contingency or "rainy day" funds to weather the current budget storm, Rex said others already are in dire straits.
In Chester County, for example, the school board is considering closing Great Falls middle and a high schools to offset budget cuts.
Cassie Barber, director of the S.C. School Improvement Council, an education organization of about 15,000 parents, teachers and community members, said the bill makes the best of a bad situation.
"None of us want to do these things, but this is where we are economically," Barber said. "Furloughing for a few days is better than closing schools."
The measure also would allow districts to negotiate lower salaries for retired teachers returning to the classroom and buy diesel fuel instead of more expensive biodiesel fuel for vehicles.
Parents such as Jeff Nicholson of Rock Hill, whose daughter is a high school senior, said lawmakers never should have voted in 2006 to swap school operating taxes on owner-occupied homes for a statewide 1-cent on the dollar increase sales tax.
"Lawmakers let us down. They made this mess," said Nicholson, who worries teachers will be furloughed.
"A teacher can't be furloughed and it not hurt schools, hurt students," he said. "Just because they're not teaching a class doesn't mean they're not working."
Also Wednesday, Rex rolled out an eight-point plan to overhaul public education in the state.
The recommendations, the results of two years' worth of work, will be put into legislation in coming weeks, Rex said. Proposals include:
• Creating a new funding system for education with a minimum millage rate for all counties. Students who live in poverty and students whose native language is not English would receive additional state funding.
• Extending 4-year-old kindergarten to all at-risk students
• Raising teachers' salaries and giving grants to districts that use innovative practices in the classroom.