State budget ax may miss local schools

York County schools might be spared this week when lawmakers vote on statewide funding cuts.

Schools across the state had been bracing for losses that education leaders said could be "crippling." Some expected a 3 percent cut on top of the 3 percent cut that legislators announced in August, citing tax and other revenue shortfalls. Others predicted schools would lose even more.

The Senate Finance Committee met Friday and emerged with a recommendation that adds just .6 percent to the original 3 percent cut in August, said committee member Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill. Educators learned in August they're losing about $73 million.

The committee's recommended cut, Hayes said, could likely be absorbed by the S.C. Department of Education, leaving school districts untouched.

"This is good news," York schools superintendent Russell Booker said. "We were getting ready to go in there and do the scalpel thing."

Area school officials have been looking at what they might lose under severe cuts.

In York, that would include some $20,000 in teacher grant money. Also, Booker said, he was planning not to replace a ragged student activity bus.

If lawmakers approve the .6 percent cut, Booker said, the district likely will keep the grants, replace the bus and buy more interactive white boards for classrooms.

First on the list to go in Rock Hill, Superintendent Lynn Moody said, likely would be additional school supplies -- copy paper, staplers, crayons, markers, jump ropes.

Other possibilities include a hiring freeze and fewer student field trips.

"That (.6 percent) certainly would be a great sense of relief," Moody said.

Rock Hill schools had been prepping for a 6 percent loss, or about $3.5 million.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex last week told schools to prepare for the worst. Rex urged lawmakers to give school districts flexibility in dealing with any cuts.

He made several recommendations:

• Free districts from mandates that keep them from cutting programs at the local level.

• Give districts the ability to modify school calendars. That could mean trimming the 180-day school year or shortening the five-day school week.

• Temporarily do away with state tests, except for what's required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That would mean no end-of-course tests for high schoolers or state social studies tests for third- through eighth-graders. It would limit science tests to one grade each in elementary, middle and high school.

If lawmakers vote with the committee's recommendation, districts could dodge those drastic changes.

Hayes said he's confident the General Assembly will approve the proposal. He said the House Ways and Means committee devised a similar recommendation.

"I think the plans are exactly the same," he said.

The General Assembly is expected to make a decision by Friday.

Meanwhile, school leaders are waiting with their fingers crossed.

"If Hayes is confident," said Clover schools superintendent Marc Sosne, "that gives us good reason to be optimistic."