School officials brace for more cuts

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By Jesef Williams

Lancaster County School District Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore and board chairman Bobby Parker said the possibility of an even tighter district budget next fiscal year tops their list of concerns for 2011, though both are confident the district will adapt and overcome.
The budget concerns come as the district prepares for the loss of federal stimulus money for fiscal year 2011-12 and uncertainty over future state funding.
The cuts would result in the third reduced annual budget in a row for the district, including last year’s budget crunch, which led to personnel cuts.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be more of the same this year,” Moore said. “When I’m looking at the budget outlook and what we’re anticipating, I’m afraid we’re going to be in a worse position since we have $2.5 million in stimulus money in the current budget that’s going to be going away.”
Moore said there is a possibility the state could receive education funding through the federal Edujobs bill, aimed at helping states rehire teachers who lost jobs due to budget cuts.
The proposition is far from certain, however, since South Carolina is one of the only states in the country that did not immediately qualify, Moore said.
“I hate to be all doom and gloom, but it’s going to be a challenge if we don’t get that federal money,” Moore said. “I’ll go back to what I’ve said before, though: Our personnel have been great in dealing with what they’ve got and I know they’ll continue to do their best for our students. I’m very proud of them.”
Parker said the board is also concerned about state funding for education since per-child funding has dropped consistently over the past few years and is now at levels not seen since the mid-1990s.
“As far as money from Columbia, we don’t even know what we’re looking at,” Parker said. “To be honest, we don’t even rely on that anymore. We just go ahead, make our plans and do the best we can.
“Come mid-year, (finance director) Tony (Walker) is going to have to get his pencil out and we’ll go from there,” he said.
While specific plans for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, will not be set until the board’s planning retreat, both Moore and Parker agreed the district’s main focus will be student achievement.
The district’s 2010 Annual Yearly Progress results met 32 of 33 objectives, the highest percentage of any school district in the region, Moore said.
“But the bar is going to go up again this year,” Moore said. “We’re making progress in those areas and we want to continue to do so.”
Parker said one thing he’d like to add to the board’s wish list for the next fiscal year is a plan for updating schools’ cafeterias and equipment, some of which dates from his days as a student in Lancaster County schools.
The money to improve cafeterias would come from the district’s capital budget, which isn’t as strained as the district’s operating budget, Parker said.
“That shouldn’t keep us from coming up with a five- or a 10-year plan to get these cafeterias up to speed and efficiency,” he said. “We have to pay for it somehow or another.”
Parker said the district started several successful projects in 2010 that the board hopes to continue and expand:
Barr Street Learning Center
Parker said the district’s new middle school alternative program is up and running and organizers hope to have the high school program in place early this year. The program is located at the old Barr Street school.
“We’re hoping that is going to pick up steam and we’ll have a full-blown alternative program up there,” he said.
Drugs and other safety issues
Parker said the district’s recent efforts to crack down on drugs at schools with drug-sniffing dogs and safety advances, such as metal detectors at schools and cameras on buses, have been successful and will be continued.
Another safety issue the board hopes will be resolved is greater protection for school employees against assault by parents, visitors or other adults or former students.
Following the August assault of a high school assistant principal, Parker said school board members spoke to Mick Mulvaney (who will be sworn in today as the 5th District congressional representative) and S.C. Reps. Jimmy Neal and Deborah Long asking for their help in writing a new safety resolution to protect school employees.
The S.C. School Board Association adopted the resolution in hopes the Legislature will make it law.
“Schools are supposed to be a safe haven and we want to make sure they remain so in this upcoming year,” he said.
A la carte menus
This year, the board approved an initiative to allow school cafeterias to sell a la carte items, such as chicken wings and tacos. Parker said the program has been remarkably successful and cafeterias will continue the program.
“They’ve actually made some money off the a la carte menu,” Parker said. “It’s keeping kids spending money inside our cafeteria instead of them going to McDonald’s or other places.”
Remembering Dr. Peter Barry
In closing, Moore said he wanted to remember Dr. Peter Barry, who died in September.
“His death was quite a loss for our board and our district. He was well respected and a beloved board member,” Moore said. “But we’ve got a great board and Bill Sumner, who just came on, is going to bring a lot to the table, so I think we’re looking forward to a great year.”

Contact reporter Jesef Williams at rmurphy@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1152