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Rock Hill schools propose plan for nearly $4M surplus

With nearly $4 million left over unexpectedly from last school year, Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody hopes to hire five teachers, reinstate employee raises and refund families the "academic fees" they were asked to pay.

During an audit of finances for last school year, it was clear that the district will have more money left over than expected, Finance Director Elaine Bilton told the school board at a meeting Monday night.

"It could be $4.1 million; it could be $3.8 million," Bilton said.

The surplus is in part from an infusion of state money related to textbook savings, energy savings across the district, late fees on property tax bills and over budgeting in some areas last school year.

It adds to a brighter financial picture for the district following the first budget season in three years in which teachers weren't forced to take unpaid leave.

State money for schools has been shrinking for the last three years as sales tax revenues have eroded South Carolina's budget for public education. While Rock Hill schools continue scaling back this year, cuts enacted over the summer were less drastic than the prior three years.

"I want to be sure you hear this loud and clear, because I hear it over and over," Moody told the board. "Our teachers are very, very, very thankful not to be furloughed. They have felt like morale has greatly improved."

She expects her plan for the surplus to boost morale even more.

Rather than add the money to reserves, Bilton proposed a spending plan for $3.9 million, which the school board is expected to vote on Sept. 26:

$1.8 million to reinstate annual employee raises for cost of living.

$1 million to plug expected holes in this school year's budget.

$555,000 for planned construction and renovation projects.

$325,000 to fill five teaching positions; officials didn't offer specifics about which positions.

$220,000 to reinstate schools' supply budgets and refund families' academic fee payments, a change likely to be welcome by families and principals alike.

Among budget cuts, the district clipped money sent to schools for supplies. To make up for it, schools began charging families a $25 "academic fee" to enroll a student. The plan was to let each school keep the fees to spend on instructional needs, such as supplies, tutors and software.

But parents were reluctant, and schools struggled to collect.

Moody told the school board that principals supported refunding the money to families, but cautioned that if they do, they don't want to turn around and reinstate the fees next year.

School board members talked favorably about Moody's plan.

"We can't justify not recognizing our teachers by asking them to go without a raise ... for the third straight year," said board member Jane Sharp, who also called the plan "good news."

If the district just banked the money, school board Chairman Bob Norwood said, "We'd be risking major public scrutiny."

Vice chairman Jim Vining worried that spending could increase to a point the district couldn't afford.

"We better not come back next year and do furloughs," he said.