While a decades-old lawsuit over school funding in South Carolina didn’t directly involve school districts in York, Chester and Lancaster counties, school leaders agree that the recent state Supreme Court ruling was the right one.
The justices ruled in November that the state of South Carolina was not doing enough to meet the funding needs of eight of South Carolina’s poorest school districts, which mainly are on the state’s “Corridor of Shame” along Interstate 95. State law requires the Legislature to give districts enough funding for schools to provide students with a “minimally adequate education.”
“Conceptually speaking, it’s about time,” said Fort Mill Superintendent Chuck Epps. “It shouldn’t matter where you live in this state as to the quality (of) education you receive.”
Chester County Superintendent Agnes Slayman said she was pleased for the school districts involved in the ruling because they were leading the way for all districts.
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“There are conditions in some of our schools that really need to be addressed, and funding of the schools is a huge issue – not just for those school districts, but for all of us,” she said.
When this lawsuit was filed in 1993, all school districts were struggling with funding, said Kelly Pew, superintendent of the Rock Hill School District. Since 2008, however, those funding challenges have been exacerbated by statewide budget cuts and an inability to make that money back in property taxes. Poor, rural school districts especially struggle because their tax bases are so low, she said.
The court’s ruling in November put the ball back in the court of the state Legislature, said Vernon Prosser, York School District 1 superintendent. The state has “failed in their constitutional duty to ensure that students receive the requisite educational opportunity,” according to the ruling.
The court, however, did not specify how the Legislature find a solution, but all superintendents interviewed by The Herald said they hope that solution involves a partial, if not complete, overhaul of how education is funded statewide.
Currently, the only proposal on the table is the S.C. Jobs, Education and Tax Act, a bill that died during the last legislative session. SCJET, as Prosser referred to it, would consolidate the number of funding sources and establish a statewide property tax rate to pay for schools. Taxes from businesses and corporations would be distributed across the 82 school districts in the state, according to population.
Under SCJET, school districts would also be able to raise taxes in their districts, if voters approved it, Prosser said; those taxes could apply to homes, also pending voter approval, which is something currently limited under state law.
While schools can currently tax homes to pay off debt, they can’t collect taxes for school operations.
The text of SCJET hasn’t been made available yet for school leaders to review, Prosser said, nor does it have specific numbers attached to it. At a recent statewide superintendents’ meeting, school leaders were told to expect the bill to be pre-filed in the next few weeks, he said.
SCJET might be a good option, Prosser said, but he worries that like previous funding laws, the state won’t fulfill its end of the bargain. The state has only fully funded the base student cost a handful of times since the 1970s, Prosser said.
For example, if York got all the money from the state that it was supposed to from Act 388, which was passed in 2006, Prosser would have $1.4 million more with which to work this fiscal year, he said. The district only got $4.6 million while they should have received a full $6 million.
Earlier this year, Gov. Nikki Haley proposed an education reform plan that would change some of the funding methods, Pew said. But while some districts benefited, some lost out. Many others, such as Rock Hill, saw its benefits offset by state-mandated increases in teacher pay and retirement, and health care costs.
Epps and Pew said there’s always the chance that giving more money to poorer school districts will take away money from wealthier ones.
“In Fort Mill, it’s even more unique because our situation is one of such tremendous growth. And over the next five-year period, it looks to really accelerate,” Epps said. Fort Mill’s schools population is currently growing at the rate equivalent to one elementary school every year.
In Fort Mill, one of the biggest costs is building schools to keep up with the booming population; funding those projects is up to the local districts.
Fort Mill, Epps said, could not stand for any decreased revenues.
But he said having pockets of poverty hurts South Carolina as a whole, and a state that is strong statewide is much more appealing to businesses and investors than one that is only strong in certain areas.
One source of support that isn’t factored into any official state formulas is community support, something school leaders say the area has in spades.
“While we may not be the richest in terms of funding levels, I think we’re pretty rich in terms of partnerships and support from the individuals within this county,” Slayman said, noting the school district “has never been turned away” when there is a real need.
Pew said in her six months in Rock Hill, she’s observed a community that’s dedicated to quality public education.
“Businesses know that hopefully the students that are in our system are ultimately going to be in leadership or business in Rock Hill,” she said. “They have a vested interest in the students we produce.”
Until they know what action state legislators are going to make, school leaders said they will continue working with what they have and planning for the future.
Several also said they would continue to reach out to legislators to make sure they know the districts’ needs and to try to persuade them to support legislation that can help.
Even the concept of a “minimally adequate” education needs to be dispelled. Why would a person want to hire anyone to do a task who’s just “minimally adequate,” Pew said.
“I would love to see in the state of South Carolina (that) we believe in more than a minimally adequate education for children who are going to be responsible for this country,” she said.