Berkeley County schools ramp up spending and hiring after recession slump

Erin Zubkoff runs dozens of sixth-graders through exercises at Cane Bay Middle School in September. Berkeley County School District’s student population is growing at a pace of about 1,000 students per year, with some schools already bursting at the seams in fast-growing areas like Cane Bay.

As Charleston County teachers brace for a lean budget year and increased classroom sizes, neighboring Berkeley County School District is increasing spending by up to $20.6 million, bringing on extra teachers and hiring psychologists and other support staff in anticipation of a wave of new students.

Berkeley County schools’ recently approved $258.8 million general fund budget represents an 8.6 percent increase over last year’s, paid for by a property tax hike that will add $30 to the tax bill for a vehicle valued at $30,000. The increase will affect all property taxes except for owner-occupied homes.

“School budgets have been reduced for so many years that there really hasn’t been an opportunity to step back and reflect: What have we lost over time?” said Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Brenda Blackburn.

District leaders started this year’s budget process by gathering input from teachers and parents on what they would like to see funded. The top priorities identified in surveys were competitive pay, restoration of spending that was cut in previous budgets and “growth” — a reference to the district’s breakneck projected growth rate of 1,000 students per year for the next 20 years.

The school board decided to hire up to 43 extra teachers to handle an anticipated 750 to 1,000 new students. The board also set aside $1 million for bus driver pay increases, far more than the state required districts to fund this year.

In Moncks Corner, a school bus parked near Main Street displays a banner announcing that the district is hiring. Blackburn said she wanted the district to be competitive in hiring because driver shortages can mean students arrive to school late.

Berkeley County School Board Chair Jim Hayes said many of the staffing and pay increases are meant to help the district catch up with surrounding counties after years of belt-tightening during the Great Recession.

“Other counties were paying quite a bit better based on experience,” said Hayes, a retired former math teacher. “We saw some gaps, so we wanted to make sure that we at least gave our teachers close to what others were getting in this area, or else there was going to be a mass exodus to other counties.”

While the Berkeley County School Board did not have to reckon with the same budget shortfalls and spending oversight issues that haunted Charleston County’s budget discussions this year, the board did face some of the same recurring challenges. The largest single spending increase, $10.9 million for increased employee pay, was the result of an underfunded mandate from state government. Lawmakers required a 2 percent pay increase for teachers based on cost of living, but they only kicked in enough state tax dollars for a 1 percent increase, leaving the district on the hook for the rest.

And despite inflation and a growing student population over the years, the state is funding the district at the same level it did in 2006-07.

In some cases, district staff got creative and turned over some rocks looking for unspent money. She said the district saved about $1.5 million on salaries this year when some longtime teachers retired and were replaced by younger teachers who sit lower on the pay scale — $500,000 of that money went straight to schools for teacher supplies.

The district is also chipping away at its goal of providing one mobile electronic device for every student, using savings from other areas to buy Chromebook laptops. Schools have also been applying for grants from Google, which has a data center in the county, to help fund tech-based learning programs. In the next year, Blackburn said 22 of the district’s 43 schools will have met the 1:1 goal.

“It’s a tool of our trade,” Blackburn said.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.