Thursday, May 26, 2011

Beaufort County makes slow progress in funding public schools

On its surface, an item published in Bluffton's newspaper offers cause to celebrate on behalf of the public schoolchildren in that district. According to that paper, thanks to infusions of funding from federal sources, the district spent $10,606 per student in the last fiscal year (2009-2010).

I say it offers cause to celebrate because it has taken 341 years for Beaufort County's children to be afforded reasonable funding for their education.

Quick history: First permanent settlers arrived at Charles Towne in 1670; first law to establish statewide system of public education was passed in 1811; and the first state public-school funding law (the Education Finance Act) was adopted in 1977, though lawmakers have undercut that law and funded less than its formula required in far more years than it fully-funded the law.

So to see in a headline that Beaufort County's public schoolchildren are finally getting the benefit of $10,606 in educational opportunity each is heartening, and to see that the calculators aren't throwing in the kitchen sink to artificially inflate the figure is even better.

Funding came from not only the $171.4 general fund budget of that year, but also included state and federal dollars allocated for specific educational uses (from special revenue and Education Improvement Act), stimulus funds ($8.9 million), and monies generated through the food service fund for student nutrition and money generated by and used by students in the student activities funds.

While Beaufort County Council approves tax millage, thus controlling revenue for the school district’s general fund, the general fund funds part but not all of the school district’s total budget.

The $220 million the state department used for the cost per student in 2009-10 does not include $163.6 million in 2009-10 for “capital and out-of-district obligations,” including $112.1 million for capital projects, mostly due to building six new schools. (In 2008, the total was just $19 million.)

In 2009-10, the district also spent $49.1 million for debt payments and $2.4 million for Riverview Charter School. All told, the district spent $373.6 million last school year.

“It has been our practice not to include (capital and out-of-district) amounts because they are various from year to year and are not considered as operating expenditures,” said Mellanie Jinnette, a financial systems manager for the South Carolina Department of Education.

Phyllis White, chief operational services officer for the Beaufort County School District, said any special revenue or grant money received can inflate the cost per pupil, as stimulus funds did in 2009-10. In 2009-10 the district received $760,000 in energy grant money.

“Any grant (free money), including teacher grants, will be included in the per pupil amount,” White said. “That’s the danger in publishing this type of information: Unless you know all the details, it can be very misleading. It is also important for comparison purposes, rather than total cost per pupil, to look at the percentages in each of the categories. I usually compare us to other districts to see how we measure up.”

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