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S.C. Schools Hit for First Time by a Midyear Budget Cut

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A mid-year cut of 2.19 percent in state education spending has disrupted the plans of school officials in South Carolina's 92 districts, but the exact effects of the $15.7-million cut appear to vary considerably from district to district, according to state and local officials.

So far, it seems unlikely that the relatively modest cut, taken from a $720,508,332 base budget, will result in dramatic layoffs or school closings. But local educators are concerned that the cut is a harbinger of further reductions in funding for education in a state that already ranks 11th among the 14 southern states in per-pupil expenditure at the primary and secondary level, according to an analysis conducted by the Southern Regional Education Board.

Higher Education Affected

According to a recent legislative report by the same group, 10 of the 14 Southern states have had to make mid-year cuts within the last two years. In every case, the cut affected higher education; elementary and secondary education were spared in Florida, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

(In Alabama, the school-finance plan includes a system of pro-rating the education budget, so that if state revenues fall short of the levels expected, officials may make corresponding cuts in the budget.)

South Carolina's cut, which affected all state agencies equally, was passed Nov. 23 by the state's budget and control board. It was made in response to unexpectedly low state revenues, and went into effect Dec. 1.

The state's two largest districts, Greenville and Charleston, will lose $1.15 million and $1 million respectively. Officials in these districts, however, have said that they will be able to weather the cut by using "reserve funds" and by putting various austerity measures into effect.

Other districts, however, had no "cushion," and are adjusting their spending plans to meet the cut.

But even in the districts with a reserve fund, officials said that they are taking steps to curtail costs.

Reserve Fund for a 'Rainy Day'

The reserve fund, said one Greenville official, was intended "for a rainy day. This is the rainy day."

On the state level, the cut could cause problems in some key education areas--notably transportation--before the end of the current school year. A largely rural state, South Carolina operates a fleet of 6,000 school buses, which transport pupils 60 million miles a year.

The transportation program is already short some $700,000 for gasoline, with the effects of the budget cut not yet figured in, according to Mont Horton, a spokesman for the state education department.

Fifty-four percent of funding for public education in South Carolina comes from the state; local districts contribute 32 percent and 14 percent comes from the federal government, Mr. Horton said.

Ninety-eight percent of the state education department's budget is "flow-through" money that is channeled to districts. "The big losers are going to be the school districts," Mr. Horton said. In an effort to minimize the local impact as much as possible, the education department cut 2.48 percent--slightly more than was necessary--from state-level administrative costs, according to Mr. Horton.

Other Efforts Made

State officials are making other efforts to reduce the effects of the cut as much as possible, Mr. Horton added.

Earlier this school year, he said, State Superintendent of Education Charles G. Williams met with local superintendents to discuss the effects of the cut. As a result of those meetings, the education department asked the budget and control board to allow the districts "maximum flexibility" in deciding what to cut, Mr. Horton said.

But in at least some districts, school officials say that the cut will probably not have immediate effects. In Charleston, where the district will lose about $1 million in a budget of approximately $50 million, a spokesman said that the district's $2-million reserve fund will cushion the effects of the cut this year.

In general, he said, officials fear that next year the cuts will affect employee benefits and funding for the state's educational-finance act, an equal-funding measure enacted in the late 1970's.

"Those are the areas we feel are of concern," he said, adding that his district will be able to "absorb" the cut. "We don't like it but we can absorb it."

No Immediate Layoffs

In Greenville, where the total budget is approximately $80 million, officials will "dip heavily into the reserve fund," which contained $3.3 million at the beginning of the year. They have initiated a hiring freeze for support and administrative personnel, but not for teachers. There will be no immediate layoffs, a spokesman said.

"The basic instructional program will be the last thing to be affected," according to Samuel L. Zimmerman, director of school-community relations for the 53,000-student district.

Similarly, in the 4,000-student Laurens County School District #56, the effects of the $90,000 loss will be offset by a $120,000 reserve fund. For the coming year, school officials are looking for ways to save money on energy, supplies, and other non-instructional costs, according to a spokesman for the district.--S.W.

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