Transition creates opportunities for more efficient school district

Students use iPads on the first day of school at Sullivan's Island Elementary School. (Brad Nettles/File)

BY TODD P. GARRETT and KATE DARBY

Over the last eight months, the Charleston County School District has seen significant turmoil and opportunity. As the dust has settled, it has allowed us to assess where we are today and where we need to go. Our mission remains to prepare children to compete in a global workforce. They need to graduate with the skills to get a 21st century job, or ready to matriculate at a four-year college or technical school with the ability to begin without taking remedial courses. While the district has many accomplishments to date, we should take advantage of this transition to refocus on that mission and refocus our resources to support it.

CCSD should be proud of what it has accomplished on the financial side. Our CFO and acting superintendent, Michael Bobby, and his team, including Terri Shannon, are to be praised for doing a tremendous job of working with the board to put CCSD on a sound financial footing. Over the last few years, we have increased our reserve operating funds to nearly 10 percent ($39.2 million), and we recently changed our policy to prevent it from slipping below 8.3 percent going forward. As a result of our improved finances, we have achieved the second highest bond ratings given by Moody’s AA1 and Standard & Poor’s AA+, just below AAA. Those higher ratings have allowed us to refinance our long-term debt obligations resulting in a total present value of savings at $72.6 million for the district. Those are real dollars that we would have spent on interest on debt, but due to our conservative financial position, we can refocus those dollars on teachers in the classroom.

At the same time, with the penny sales tax referendum, we have built new schools across the district, adding needed capacity and upgrades without taking on any new debt. The referendum has also given us a steady income stream to contribute more money for maintenance of existing buildings, IT upgrades, and to pay down all of our existing long-term debt by 2032. As a result of the new construction, when our insurance providers reassessed our schools this year, seeing first-hand the quality of structures, our insurance premium was reduced $3 million below what it was projected to be this year. (Thank you, Dana Henderson.)

Looking at the operating budget, we have increased teachers’ and principals’ salaries significantly in an effort to make them competitive with other districts like ours, but more importantly to attract top talent from across the nation. Since 2001, the average teacher salary is up 36 percent and the average starting salary for teachers in CCSD is up 44 percent. Over the same period, real incomes in the private sector have gone down 6.7 percent. In order to bring teachers and principals to where they ought to be, we will need to increase the budget by an additional $23 million. When tax revenues allow for that, the board would like to move forward to bring teacher and principal salaries to where they should be. Having said that, significant leadership changes over the last eight months have given us a chance to look at where we are, what we are spending, and where we need to go.

Over the last few years, on top of salaries, we have increased spending significantly. Staff, programs, consultants and third-party vendors have grown each year, and we have not stepped back to assess whether they have shown a demonstrable contribution to student achievement. Our current organizational structure has morphed, and would likely benefit from a significant change in order to increase accountability. More importantly, we need to increase vertical articulation, or constant conversations, between the school levels to ensure that kindergartners, 6th and 9th graders show up ready to learn on grade level. We spend 25 percent more per student than Greenville County does, but still pay our teachers and principals less, on average, according to state report cards. At the same time, our achievement gap has widened in most areas, while Greenville County’s has shrunk. More money does not necessarily equate to better classroom results.

While student numbers have grown over the last 15 years, our K-12 enrollment has only risen by 5.2 percent (2,347 students). The student growth argument for a tax hike is proposing a 2,166 K-12 enrollment increase next year alone. With Boeing, Volvo, Daimler and the appeal of our quality of life, our area is certainly growing, but it is unrealistic to expect next year’s student growth to nearly equal the amount of growth that has happened over the last 15 years.

In a year in which taxpayers approved a $500 million referendum to extend the penny sales tax to pay for new schools, with the implicit guarantee that it would ensure that we didn’t raise taxes, it would be disingenuous to go back and ask for a tax hike now. Given the transition in leadership, we should take the opportunity to assess all programs, positions, and spending, and ask ourselves, “Do they contribute to success in the classroom?” If the answer is “no” or “no, but ...” then we should cut them. We should be student focused. The jobs should support the mission.

Until we take that hard look and act on our findings, we cannot ask the taxpayers to do more heavy lifting.

Finally, over the next few months, we are working to establish our own report card for assessing schools. We should expect more of our district than the state does.

Whether we are looking at transforming low-performing schools with a turnaround district, or just demanding better accountability across schools, we need our own metrics. We should expect all students to meet or exceed all standards at all schools. If they don’t today, then what do we need to do to get there?

We have an outstanding team of leaders across CCSD. Michael Bobby, Dr. Lisa Herring, and our teachers and principals in each school work incredibly hard to improve the education of our students. This time of transition is an opportunity to refocus on our mission of preparing students for a career and redirect resources to contribute solely to that purpose.

Todd P. Garrett and Kate Darby are members of the Charleston County School Board.