Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pickens board eliminates 87 positions, ignores corporate tax loopholes

Question: How does a career spent on Wall Street prepare one to lead an elected body which governs education policy, funding, and personnel matters? This is not a trick question, and there's likely not a rational answer to it. After all, this is South Carolina.

While state lawmakers are laying plans this week to dismantle public education from the top down, school boards across South Carolina are being pushed to accomplish the same objective from the bottom up. In Pickens County, for instance, the board voted on Monday to eliminate almost 90 positions to address the $5 million budget deficit. No help comes from the legislature in this matter, as its majority opposes public education specifically and government aid for public services generally. Remember, this is the legislature we elected.

Hopefully, the parents who spoke up on Monday are registered and fully aware of local and state candidates' platforms when next Election Day comes.

The vote came after the board received vigorous input from residents who nearly filled the Liberty Middle School auditorium to voice their disapproval of cuts to positions that could also affect programs.

“Education will level the playing field for all people,” Mary Kelly said. “I ask that you use your fiduciary judgment and make cuts where they least effect the students.”

The wise men of Pickens pulled the old "executive session" gambit, claiming privilege in order to discuss "cuts to individuals and positions," and to its credit, the Greenville News put up a spirited challenge to that game: "while talking about individuals qualified for a closed meeting, talking about positions did not." But the board's lawyer, Jane Turner, defended with logical jiujitsu, declaring, "eliminating certain positions would mean some individuals would either have to be 'moved or let go,' so they should not be discussed in a public meeting," the News reported.

Chairman Alex Saitta, who came under fire from members of the audience and some of the board members, said the approved plan represented a compromise.

“We had to eliminate positions,” Saitta said.

In point of fact, that was not the only option available to the venerable Pickens board and its chairman. Pickens County has a quite experienced and capable legislative delegation, whose experience and status in the legislative chambers surely inform them that a fiscal crisis may be addressed with budget cuts AND/OR revenue increases. If that delegation so chose, it could angle for such revenue increases from a variety of sources -- might I suggest closing some corporate tax loopholes? -- sufficient to ensure that no public employees would lose their positions in Pickens County. But Chairman Saitta did not mention this option to the News. Instead, Saitta promoted his "compromise."

To balance the current school year the district a year ago eliminated 105 positions. Saitta said the compromise would lower that number by about 20 percent. He also said “basically none” of the district’s classroom positions would be eliminated.

The district did not release any specifics on which positions would be eliminated until after individuals were notified. Superintendent Henry Hunt held out hope that not all the positions would be lost. “As we work through the budget we hope some things might improve,” Hunt said.

The board decision left the Simpson Academy and its programs intact, which was a major concern of many who attended the meeting.

This suggests that the board is entirely capable of establishing priorities; it simply chooses not to establish the entire district as a priority. I wonder if the board has issued any public statement or resolution entreating its state legislators and leaders to make choices that hold public services and employees harmless in the present budget morass? I'm not aware of one but would feel better knowing the board had adopted such a position.

And, because it's Pickens County, there was the requisite reference to the War of Northern Aggression on the anniversary of its commencement.

The public-input portion of the meeting culminated when former chairman Jim Shelton spoke out, seemingly aiming his comments at Saitta.

“Next month marks the 150th anniversary of the first shots in the War of Northern Aggression,” Shelton said. “It seems appropriate that in Liberty, the first shots against Northern aggression and Wall Street” have been fired.

Saitta is a New York native and worked on Wall Street before moving to South Carolina.

At least the reference was artfully made, and by a former board chairman, to boot. Well played, Mr. Shelton.

In recent weeks, the board and district staff have focused on personnel cutbacks, including school resource officers, guidance counselors and assistant principals.

Unnecessarily so, and unnecessarily jeopardizing the futures of Pickens County schoolchildren. What happened to the role of a school board as chief advocate for the children enrolled in its schools?

At least the districts' schools will remain safe, according to WYFF's reporting.

It appears school resource officers have been spared, according to Superintendent Henry Hunt.

"Right now with our (school resource program) looking at it we hope through the budget process they would be preserved," said Hunt.

When News 4’s Mandy Gaither asked about guidance counselors and assistant principals, Hunt said, “Well, looking at the whole picture of things there trying to come up with a balanced budget, we have to have some reductions and we'll be working with our individuals, notifying folks there about position eliminations."

Because children need protection but not guidance. Wars have been fought to preserve this very principle.

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