By Betsy Finklea
LATTA–The Latta School Board met with two members of the Dillon County delegation in a public meeting on Tuesday to discuss the future of the Latta Schools and to get answers to some questions about the proposed change in the school funding formula.
The Request For Change
At the Dillon County Board of Education meeting last month, the county board received a letter from the delegation requesting a change in the school funding formula basing it on the assessed valuation for each of the individual school districts in Dillon County. Funds have historically been placed in one pot and divided on a per pupil basis. County Board Chairman Richard Schafer said this was to be effective as of July 1, 2010. This amounts to a $300,000 reduction in funds to the Latta School District, a $100,000 reduction in funds to the Latta School District, and a $400,000 increase in funds to Dillon District Two.
Latta Meeting’s Purpose
Latta Superintendent Dr. John Kirby said he hoped the meeting would clear up some confusion about why this is happening and would get some questions answered that the board has been getting from the community. He said Rep. Jackie Hayes and Sen. Kent Williams were invited to the meeting because they represent the Latta area. Sen. Dick Elliott, the third member of the delegation, represents the Lake View area.
Hayes’ Opening Remarks
Rep. Hayes then offered some opening comments. He said he had received some letters from people in the Latta area questioning his and Sen. Williams’ commitment to education. Hayes has been in office since 1998, and Williams has been in office since 2004.
Hayes said that in 1979, the school millage was 126. In 1982, this was reduced to 82.25 mills. He said around 1999-2000, the school districts got back to where they had been. Hayes said they have a meeting every year to see what they can do to make things work. He said the school millage is now at 165 mills, and under his watch, the schools had gained about 65 mills. “I know how important the schools are,” Hayes said. He said he didn’t do this because of politics, but that he did what’s right for the schools. Hayes said they don’t control the millage anymore. He said it is not controlled by the auditor and is based on the CPI index. He said the only mills the delegation can put on are mills for debt service and special projects.
Hayes also discussed some other things that had been done for the schools since he has been in office. He said they eliminated school fees, and students no longer have to pay these school fees. Hayes said they implemented the $500 teacher bonus. In 1999, he brought $8.9 million for the schools (Latta got $2.4 million; Dillon got $4.9 million; and Lake View got $1.6 million).
Hayes said he also had a big role in helping to bring Northeastern Technical College to Dillon. He said the Dillon County Council initially said they would fund it and didn’t. He said he put on one mill, and this later increased to 2 mills.
Another thing that he did was get the paving around the schools and gym in Latta. He also was instrumental in the legislation for the new schools capital sales tax projects.
In the last 10 years, he said Latta recreation has received $111,000. He also contributed $5,400 personally to the Latta Athletic Department.
Hayes said this was not a “witch hunt,” but was something they needed to do because it was “right.” He thanked the board members for what they do.
He said he wakes up every day excited about being an educator.
Hayes said there was not a time when Dr. Kirby had come to him to do something that he had not done it or tried to do it. Dr. Kirby affirmed this.
“This is not about trying to do anything to Latta,” said Hayes, “or trying to take anything from Latta. I think this is a fairness issue.”
Williams’ Opening Remarks
Sen. Williams said that education was “near and dear to his heart.” He served on the Marion County School Board for six years and chaired it for four of those years. Williams said one can’t talk about economic development without talking about education. He said Latta’s reputation precedes it, and he often gets comments about the excellent job done there. He said Latta was “second to none.” He attributed this to the leadership and support from the community.
Williams said in their (the delegation’s) position, they have to sometimes make some tough decisions. He said they must do what the law dictates in terms of funding and make sure that funding is fair and equitable.
He said they were going to “do nothing to take away from or hurt the district.” Williams also stated that this was not a “politically motivated” decision and that there was “no hidden agenda.”
He said his agenda was the children first and giving them the best possible education. Williams said he would do everything to support that and at the end of the day, he hoped it would all work out.
The delegation was then asked to answer several questions which the board had received from the community and/or that the board would like to have answered. Board members also had the opportunity to ask some follow-up questions if necessary.
Question No. 1
Is your letter a request or a directive and should the County Board vote on it?
Hayes said at a delegation meeting between he, Williams and Elliott that they decided to make this move. He said it was “not politically motivated.” He said he thought it was a fairness issue and it was time to fix it. Hayes said they sent a letter to the county board which may have surprised the chairman and “may not have been handled the best in the world.” He said he wouldn’t have a problem sending a letter asking the county board to vote on it. Hayes noted that they had never sent a letter to the county board before.
Williams said that the letter was a “request” and that they “try not to give directives.” He said maybe they were not clear enough.
Kirby said he would like to see the county board form a committee to study this since the taxes don’t start coming in until December. He asked and was told that whatever decision the county board made was legal and legally binding.
Trustee Kyle Berry asked if they would consider delaying this until the 2011-2012 school year. He said the district had the option not to allow students to come into Latta or to charge for tuition for students who are out-of-district. He said he would not like to tell parents this close to the beginning of school that they were being charged tuition. He said if it could be postponed for one calendar year it would be more fair to these parents. Hayes said that would be a decision to be made by the county board.
This was followed by discussion on the criteria to allow students into the school district and whether it was a pick and choose process or an open-ended process. Kirby said it was an open-ended process where things such as bad grades, poor discipline or an overloaded class were considered. Kirby also pointed out that the other districts had to sign to release these students. He said many of the out-of-district students who they get are students who had been to private school and wanted to return to public education in their school system. He said they currently have a waiting list of between 50 and 100 students.
Question No. 2
In any way is this connected to consolidation?
Hayes stressed that he was not for consolidating any schools. He said as far as consolidating administrations go that may be down the road, but it does not affect Latta in any way whatsoever. He said the schools were three separate entities with things different and unique about them. Williams also reiterated that this had nothing to do with consolidation in any way, shape or form.
Question No. 3
The timing of the request seems politically motivated coming just after the election and not prior during the budget process that began in April -May. Why so late with the request?
Hayes said they had a meeting in late April and the first of May where they all sat down and talked.
He said they agreed to a 10 day furlough for administrators and a five day furlough for teachers. In late May or the first of June, Hayes said he had five teachers at Dillon High School come to his office questioning him about why they had to take furlough days and Latta did not. He said then he received the same question from two in Lake View.
He said Dr. Kirby was given a directive by the Latta board that they felt like they had enough money and didn’t need to take the furloughs.
Hayes said they had always talked about the funding formula and that Dr. Kirby had always told him to do what they had to do that they could handle it. He said he went home and got to really thinking that something was not right about the way they were funding the schools.
He said he did the research and got with Elliott and Williams to talk about it. He said the reason it had not been taken care of before by previous delegations was because of politics.
Hayes said to make a long story short that Lake View had nearly used up its fund balance and now was the perfect time to get it right and this would force them to make some tough decisions. He said he has to represent everyone in Dillon County.
Williams said it may seem politically motivated, but it was not politically motivated in any way. He said hindsight is 20/20 and the timing may have been out of sync with the budget process, but this an oversight. He said it was definitely not politically motivated.
Trustee Edward Bethea asked why it was not fair to fund students on a per pupil basis. He said it seems more equitable to do it that way. He said if it is funded per pupil then it is the same for all students and everyone is equal. Hayes said he understood that, but how could he justify Dillon putting more money into the system than they are getting in return.
Williams said the law is very clear in how state funds are to be distributed, but with the “local money you can get creative.” He said they were trying to make it fair and equitable.
Trustee Berry said the board had been creative in the way they made cuts which made the furloughs unnecessary.
He said they had cut the 401K match for 12 month employees, eliminated positions, and took away supplies money. He said they got creative instead of furloughing teachers. Berry said they only wanted to furlough teachers as a last resort because their purpose was to educate students and give them maximum instruction time.
Board Chair Betty Jo Johnson said she felt they were being punished because they did not furlough teachers something which she took the lead on as board chair.
She also said she did not see how this change would help Lake View. Hayes said it would force Lake View to make a tough decision.
Johnson said she felt Latta was getting blamed for this happening to the whole county.
Question No. 4
Does this request have any funding impact on the voter approved building plans where projects were prioritized and approved by the county board?
The answer to this was simply no.
Question No. 5
Is the assessed value for districts for the distribution current to today or the last reassessments in 2006?
Hayes said for schools it would be current because it is is done for schools every year so they could get the maximum benefit right away.
Kirby said that the county council can waive school taxes to entice industry and in that case reassessment could hurt.
Question No. 6
Have the district lines been moved or are they fluid, ie. Harbor Freight?
Hayes said no lines had been moved. There had been discussion about this before because the City of Dillon ran the lines out there, but Hayes said the answer is no.
Dr. Kirby said that area used to be Dothan which was consolidated into Latta. Hayes said moving the lines would have to be done legislatively.
Question No. 7
Will the assessed value split be adjusted automatically with reassessment every five years or annually?
The answer was annually.
Question No. 8
Since the funding will follow assessment percentages, will the shared costs of the districts for certain programs (ATECH, alternative school, worker’s compensation, etc.) also shift from student percentage to assessment percentage?
Dr. Kirby pointed out that if this happened the district’s bills would be less.
Hayes said this would have to be done by the county board. He also said that he didn’t see how they could have an alternative school because there were no funds for it.
Question No. 9
With 5 to 7 trustees not reappointed yet (some since 2009) and the last 2 with appointments ending in 7 months, is there any connection to consolidation?
Hayes said they have been recommended and the documentation has been sent to the Governor’s office who does the reappointing. Hayes again said there was going to be no consolidation of the schools.
Question No. 10
Do any other multi-school district counties supplement or equalize local funds?
It was noted that Anderson 5; York 1, 2, 3, 4; Laurens 55 and 56, and Marion had all done creative things with local funds. There is no mandate on how local funds are divided. State funds are mandated on assessed value.
Hayes said action was taken to avoid a potential lawsuit.
Williams said he thinks at the end of the day they can work things out.
Question No. 11
The Latta District does have quite a few students attending who live in Dillon. Over 95 % attended private schools and now support public education in Dillon County. Should not some financial consideration be made from local funds?
Hayes said this is an issue that needs to be worked out by the county board.
Hayes said his figures showed that Lake View was putting in 12.61% of the money, but getting back 14.08%; that Dillon was putting in 64.3% of the money and getting back 58.73%; and Latta was putting in 23.5 % of the money and getting back 27.21%.
Hayes said this is where the problem lies. He said how could Dillon be expected to put in 64.3% and only get back 58.73%.
Question No. 12
Since the main function of the County Board is appropriating local funding, why do we need them now?
Hayes said he can’t answer that.
Question No. 13
Could you support a binding referendum with follow-up legislation if the voters in the Latta School District voted to have a separate district with fiscal autonomy with an elected five member board?
Hayes said he really had no problem with that. He also spoke about the advisory referendum in November.
Later in the meeting, the public was allowed to make comments. Both Williams and Hayes had left at this point because of other obligations.
Stephanie Johnson said she still feels a little uneasy and feels it was motivated by the furlough days and angry employees in other districts who had to furlough.
She said she didn’t know why the other superintendents didn’t come to Latta to see what they had done so they wouldn’t have to furlough.
She said she felt this issue should have gone to the citizens.
Johnson said she still has many questions.
O.C. Lane Jr. said there was a concern in the Latta community about consolidation. He said they both said they were against it, but it could be dictated from a state level.
He expressed concerns that Lake View was going to be left to fall by the wayside so something will happen.
Other comments were made that praised Latta and the fact that they had been good financial stewards.
One citizen suggested that this was a “jealousy” issue.
The discussion on the matter will likely continue in coming weeks.