As Midlands public schools open this week, the disaster scenarios that swirled during debates over the state budget have given way to a slightly rosier outlook. Still, most districts are opening schoolhouse doors with fewer teachers, a situation that commenced with the recession of 2008. And there is heightened awareness of the uneven nature of the economic downturn and recovery.
There are bright spots — Lexington 1, for example, is adding teachers and Richland 2 still has some vacancies as it opens two new schools, Catawba Trails Elementary School and Muller Road Middle School.
“A year ago, I didn’t see light at the end of the tunnel at all, but now I can see some light,” Kershaw County Superintendent Frank Morgan said Thursday. “Obviously, the additional funding we were able to get at the end of the General Assembly was very, very helpful.”
Still, he said, his district’s $63 million budget is 5 percent below funding levels of three years ago, when the budget hovered at $72 million.
Several administrators told the paper that things weren't as bad as they could have been, which is code in South Carolina for "be happy with what you've been given, because it could be snatched away next year."
That’s the sense among other school district officials who are grateful for the additional funds but still aware that per-pupil expenditures are well below levels of even three years ago.
“In 2009, it was $2,578,” said Richland 1 chief budget officer Ed Carlon, who oversees a $246 million budget. “Now it is $1,880.”
We're not a full year into a four-year Haley-Zais administration. The $1,880 per pupil approved by the legislature in June might shrink to $1,500, or $1,000 per pupil, next year. As Carlton said, consider what the per-pupil expenditure was in 2008-09, during the halcyon days of that grand underminer of public schools, Mark Sanford.
Many education veterans have gotten the message.
In Richland 2, many “working retirees,” teaching under annual letters of agreement, will not return to the classroom this year, part of an exodus that began in 2009-10.
Those departures have alarmed district residents like the Rev. Brad Smith and his wife, Nancy, parents of three, who took the unusual step of addressing a letter this month to other parents questioning, among many issues, whether such layoffs were necessary.
“Together these teachers embody not only enormous leadership, wisdom and experience; they also help embody the culture of Richland 2,” the Smiths wrote. “While billed as a ‘cost-saving’ move, it is also a ‘culture-shifting’ move.”
Bottom line: Experienced teachers cost more, they have amassed large constituencies, and they're intimidating to their employers. Newer teachers are cheaper and can more easily be told what to do. And, as an added bonus, they're so worried about losing their jobs in the current economy, they'll accept all the committee assignments, extracurricular work and non-instructional duties an administrator wants to pile on them.
In fact, that's true of all the survivors of job cuts:
If there is a silver lining to the years of austerity, Kershaw County’s Morgan said it has come in the willingness of employees and the community to shoulder the additional work and share the burden.
“I’m so absolutely impressed and grateful for the work our folks have done during very difficult times,” he said.
Yes, hard times are a true test of (every)one's character.