Ford: Haley upsets members of black caucus with MUSC trustee change

Gov. Nikki Haley (left) and state Sen. Robert Ford

SUMMERVILLE -- Bob and Christina O'Day moved from Guam three years ago and bought a house in the area so their children could attend Dorchester District 2 schools.

Now, the military family is worried the quality of their children's education will plummet next year when the district is forced to cut an additional $9.6 million from its budget.

The O'Days were among about 300 parents, community members and district employees who came to a budget input session at Summerville High School on Monday evening to learn about how the district would compensate for budget cuts in the 2010-2011 school year.

"We want to see if the areas they are cutting make sense," Bob O'Day said. He doesn't want them to affect the classroom.

But officials from the suburban school district said they want suggestions on what to cut before they hold a public hearing May 11. They opened the session warning the audience that the budget presentation would be depressing and that the financial cuts next year would be severe.

Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke said the district needs about $138.5 million in operating money next year, but it only expects to bring in $128.9 million from state and local sources. That's a problem, she said, because the district already is operating on a bare-bones budget after suffering through nine rounds of state budget cuts in the past 18 months.

Dorchester 2 is hit particularly hard when its budget is cut because the district continues to grow, even in tough economic times, she said. She expects 350 more students to enroll next year.

District leaders haven't yet decided what they will cut next year, Superintendent Joe Pye said. They are considering their options now and will present their recommendations at the public hearing.

Some of the ways the district compensated for cuts in the current school year include: requiring most employees to take three unpaid furlough days and administrators to take off six days without pay; not hiring to fill vacancies; cutting department budgets; and dipping into its rainy-day fund.

Cost-cutting options on the table for next year include: introducing more furlough days; cutting academic assistance programs; hiring private companies for custodial services and school bus operations; and cutting sports programs.

Megan O'Day, an eighth- grader at Alston Middle School and Bob and Christina's daughter, said her classmates are afraid the district will cut sports programs. "A lot of kids look forward to sports at the end of the day," she said.

Tony King, who works in the district's transportation department training school bus drivers, said he hopes the district won't hire a private company to run school buses. When that happens, districts lose a lot of good drivers, and operators often aren't as receptive to parents' needs, he said.

Eileen Fernandez-Parker, an instructional technology specialist at Beech Hill Elementary School and a parent of four children, said the budget problems are certainly not because of teachers being overpaid. Her children are eligible for the reduced-cost lunch program because of her income, she said.

Duke said that in addition to a slumping economy, the budget shortfall largely was caused by a shift several years ago in the way the state funds schools. It moved from a system based primarily on property taxes to one based primarily on sales taxes, she said.

But the system simply isn't working. The state has increased the number of sales tax exemptions; its economy has shifted from products to non-taxed services; and many people are making purchases over the Internet, which bring in little or no sales tax money, she said.

Pye encouraged people to talk to legislators in Columbia to ask them come up with new sources of revenue.

District officials wound down their presentation on an even grimmer note. The only thing worse than the district's current financial situation is what it will face in the 2011-2012 school year if the system doesn't change, they said.

Dorchester 2 received $6.4 million in federal stimulus money this year and will receive $4 million next year, Duke said. But then it won't get any more stimulus money.

"The worst is yet to come," Pye said.