Monday, June 27, 2011

School for special needs children faces budget crisis

When the state legislature and governor abdicate their responsibility to fund the needs of children in South Carolina's public schools, where do local administrators go to ensure the long-term health and well-being of their schools? That's what administrators across Spartanburg's seven districts are addressing now, as the McCarthy Teszler School taps the bottom of its reserve fund.

The Spartanburg Herald-Journal reports that the MTS -- the county's only public school for special needs students -- has run annual deficits in recent years and its reserve fund is running dry. Needs are needs; what would happen if the reserve fund was allowed to run completely out? Is it acceptable to let schools close for lack of funds?

Clearly, it isn't, which is why a county that is normally quite conservative weighs rational measures to meet the need: including the county-wide tax increase that benefits MTS.

For at least one more year, part of the plan means a county-wide tax increase specifically for McCarthy Teszler, which serves students in all seven Spartanburg County school districts.

The school serves more than 200 of Spartanburg County's special needs students and is a hub for satellite programs throughout the county. Students range from 3 to 21 years old, and have autism, severe medical, orthopedic, mental and emotional disabilities on varying levels.

“The school meets a need of families and children that would be difficult to meet in the regular school setting,” said Deputy Superintendent for Spartanburg District 7 Terry Pruitt. “They have special instructors and special equipment and materials and resources there. Having all those resources in one place is an advantage to our community.”

Though it serves students throughout the county, McCarthy Teszler is under the financial umbrella of Spartanburg District 7. General fund expenses total about $10.8 million, while revenues come to approximately $10.4 million — about a $400,000 increase over the previous year. The difference in revenues and expenses will once again be drawn from the school's dwindling fund balance, said District 7 Chief Financial Officer Bruce Whelchel.

Boards for districts 1, 3 and 6 have already approved the McCarthy Teszler budget. Districts 2, 4, 5 and 7 are set to vote on the school's budget, as well as their own, early this week.

Circumstances were not always this dire. Four years ago, thanks to prescient administrators, the school's reserve fund reached nearly $4 million. But mandates forced the school to open satellites in all seven districts at the same time that earlier diagnoses of special needs in children nationwide caused a jump in the number of children being served. Costs associated with maintaining MTS and its satellites ballooned.

Pruitt explained that the school is mandated by law to meet the needs of McCarthy Teszler students, so classroom instruction and therapy services haven't suffered from budget cuts. Teacher-student ratios remain low, and students have access to speech, physical and occupational therapy.

“The families are just very pleased with the care that their children get at McCarthy Teszler,” Pruitt said. “...Having a facility like that right here in our county, even though it's an expense to the community, it's well worth what we provide to those children.”

Whelchel added that it's difficult to make many cuts at the school without impacting safety. Although, an outside consultant was brought in to see that the school was running on the highest efficiency level. Whelchel said he and school leaders are still searching for the solution to long-term financial sustainability. Simply put, he said, the school needs more revenue.

“Every stone's being unturned right now to see what we need to do. We have to raise additional revenue for McCarthy Teszler, and we're looking at ways county-wide to do that,” Whelchel said. “All of the boards and all of the superintendents are 100 percent committed to it.”

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