Fort Mill Times

Take money, but plan for future

He took it to the brink, but late last week, Gov. Mark Sanford complied with a requirement needed to ensure South Carolina won't lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid offered under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

What happens now is anybody's guess.

Sanford says he will not actually request the money, which is intended for public schools and law enforcement, unless it can be applied to reducing state debt. The Obama administration twice turned down his requests to spend it that way and South Carolina lawmakers - many of whom are saying they want the money spent on schools and police - lack the legal right to acquire the money without the governor's approval.

Friday, Sanford sent a letter to White House Budget Director Peter Orszag saying South Carolina would accept the funds. If he didn't do that by the end of the day the money would no longer be available to the state. However, the governor also wrote that he's not ready to take the next step and apply for aid, although he might, "at some later date."

In the meantime, the White House and members of Congress are working with S.C. legislators on a possible change to the Act that would allow the state House to end run the governor.

We think it's time to end this political tug of war that will only cost the state time and money it can't afford. Sanford should do what's right for the state and our local schools at this moment and apply for the money that's needed to prevent Draconian cuts in staff and programs.

For now.

Sanford is right in calling attention to the state's budget deficit. What happens if the economy is no better off by the time the federal aid runs out? That's the question we hope local school officials are asking themselves.

Even if the source of school funding reverts back to primary residential taxes as it used to be, rather than state sales tax, there's no guarantee that property values will be at sufficient levels or if there will be enough solvent homeowners left to contribute to an adequate revenue stream.

School budget planners better take this time to plan for economic scenarios that are as bad, if not worse, than what we're facing now. Although every effort should be made to keep low student-teacher ratios because it's one of the factors behind Fort Mill's success, they may have to be adjusted. Every possibility, from extra curriculars to procurement, should be scoured for savings. Pilot programs aimed at saving on electric costs seemed promising and perhaps they should be expanded (there may even be some federal aid for such projects).

With new schools under construction and preliminary plans for more discussed, it's time to plan for the possibility of split sessions. Unless the economy returns to pre-recession levels, local taxpayers won't be in such a giving mood when the next bond referendum comes around.

At the same time, we'd like to see the federal government ease the burden on schools by eliminating unfunded mandates such as No Child Left Behind, which yields little bang for the buck.

The lifeline offered by the federal government couldn't have come at a better time, but no one should get used to it.