Fort Mill Times

Fewer cuts for school budget, but some parents dismayed over rise in sports fees, loss of program

For Fort Mill teachers and administrators, the threat of unpaid furloughs is gone. In fact, teachers will receive salary increases and a bus transportation trainer position is no longer on the chopping block.

That's part of the plan for next year's amended $69.6 million budget the Fort Mill School Board and district leaders revealed during Monday's public budget hearing. Monday's announcement came on the heels of Gov. Mark Sanford's forced request for $700 million in federal stimulus money for the state.

The share of pie for the Fort Mill School District is $2.7 million. Here's how that money will be used:

The district will earmark $1.2 million to open its fourth middle school in 2010. The budget also proposes $183,000 to add back math specialists on the middle school level, said Leanne Lordo, assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

The budget further proposes an allotted $305,000 for five new teachers to handle anticipated student growth. Another $122,000 is set aside under the new budget to fill vacancies for one elective course at the district's two high schools. The budget also makes allowances for $122,000 to revive two gifted and talented teaching positions, Lordo said.

Adding the stimulus money to the 2009-2010 budget also cancels out the mandated four-day furlough for administrators - including Superintendent Keith Callicutt - and two days for teachers.

The long awaited stimulus trims the district's $4.7 million shortfall to $2 million. It also means more money for some district employees, Lordo said.

"Teachers will be the only employees in our district next year to receive salary increases," she said.

Salaries for everyone else will be frozen, Lordo said.

It wasn't all good news, however; The revamped budget proposes increasing athletic fees by $25 next year, from $50 to $75. That proposed move didn't sit well with several parents.

"I hate that $75 athletic fee," said Jeanne Gregory, Fort Mill High School booster club president. "We're pricing our kids out. When they find out...they're not going to show up to try out."

Gregory encouraged the school board to carefully weigh the consequences of hiking the fee.

"We're about to blow this up $25 a kid," she said. "That's a lot."

Lordo said increasing the fee while reducing bus repairs would generate $105,815 for extracurricular activities with some $44,000 earmarked for athletics. That move quiets a brewing storm about discontinuing some middle school spring sports.

"We would reinstate middle school sports with the additional athletic fee," Lordo said.

But none of those funds or the stimulus money was set aside for a reading recovery program that had been planned for Gold Hill, Springfield, Orchard Park and Pleasant Knoll elementary schools.

"I'm disappointed in a budget that puts sports before academics," school board member Michael Johnson said. "We need reading recovery."

At least one parent celebrated a victory in part because of reading recovery.

"I had a child who was in the reading recovery program and she blossomed this year with her reading," Nancy Frase said. "I could see her confidence (in reading) shine through."

The Fort Mill mom said she wondered how officials could decide which academic programs should be cut.

"If you're going to cut one program, cut them all across the board," she said. "If you're going to cut the reading recovery program, then you need to cut the math specialist program too."

The notion also didn't sit well with Jeanne Gregory.

"I'm a teacher," she told the school board. "That's a no brainer. Get the reading specialist back."

The proposed budget also does away with a swim program.

"I'm embarrassed that we're cutting a program that cost $20,000 from a budget of $70 million, said Brynne Fisher, a parent and former human resource manager. "That's a rounding error."

Halfway through the hearing, about five youth sat in support of sports in school.

Taylor Parker, a rising senior at Fort Mill High School and captain of the soccer team, addressed the board about keeping middle school sports.

"It's important for kids to have the opportunity to play sports," she said. "It's unfair to cut spring sports (in middle schools). If spring sports are going to be cut, cut fall sports."

Board member Diane Dasher said piecing the budget together wasn't an easy task.

"It's been really hard on all of us to work on this budget," she said. "We want to be able to support everything."

The Fort Mill school board will give the budget its final reading Monday, June 29. That meeting is slated for 7 p.m. at the district office. For more information, call the Fort Mill School District office at 548-2527.