COLUMBIA -- Charleston County schools could borrow money that typically would go toward building projects, and instead use it to temporarily fund teachers, under a proposal that got key approval in the House on Tuesday.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said the legislation could provide the district with another option to deal with the next round of budget cuts during the state's deep and prolonged budget slump.
"I would rather on a temporary basis -- and that's what this is, very temporary -- allow them to do something that ordinarily we would not allow them to do than to see more teachers laid off, more positions eliminated and see children in large, unmanageable class sizes," Stavrinakis said.
The legislation needs perfunctory final approval in the House, then must pass the Senate. Because it applies only to Charleston County schools, only legislators from Charleston County will cast votes.
For similar legislation to be considered for schools in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, a legislator from one of those counties must propose it.
Gov. Mark Sanford opposes such local legislation, and is expected to veto the bill if it makes it to his desk. He vetoed similar bills that grant the flexibility to districts in York and Georgetown counties. The York delegation already has overridden the governor's veto.
Charleston schools Chief Financial Officer Mike Bobby said district officials had been working with Stavrinakis on ways to create new revenue for schools, and this was an option that seemed to have some possibility.
He said it wouldn't necessarily be the first course of action school leaders would pursue, and he wasn't sure whether they would use it at all. Still, it's nice to have the alternative to consider, he said.
"It's a tool that a district might use to generate revenue in a situation where there aren't any other options," he said.
The district's debt capacity for capital projects is about $100 million, but the school board approved on Monday using that money to repair schools with seismic deficiencies if a sales tax referendum doesn't pass this fall.
If the referendum passes, that money would be freed up for potential use as proposed.
Stavrinakis said the legislation is a means to help the district prepare for budget cuts proposed in the $5 billion budget that begins July 1.
Stavrinakis, among others, tried to send money from a cigarette tax increase to public education, but those efforts have not been successful.
"It is not generally the kind of fiscal policy you want, but we're in dire straits," Stavrinakis said.