Published Online: May 4, 2010

S.C. Schools Chief: Nearly 4,000 Jobs Could Be Lost

South Carolina's public schools are expected to cut thousands of jobs over the next few months, state schools chief Jim Rex said Monday, calling the loss disastrous for education.

District officials expect to cut between 2,100 and 3,800 jobs, including up to 2,500 teachers, according to an Education Department survey of school districts. It's unknown how many of those cuts could be handled through attrition.

School boards are planning 2010-11 budgets based on the proposed state budget, which the Senate approved last week. The House and Senate must now hash out the differences between their plans. Both versions reduce state spending on teacher pay and other education basics to 1995 levels.

Even with federal stimulus money there's a $500 million gap in education funding, compared to two years ago, said John Cooley, the education agency's budget director.

"This is going to be disastrous," Superintendent Rex said. "Class sizes will go up. We will lose some of the youngest, brightest, most energetic new teachers."

He urged parents to ask their children's school principals and teachers how their schools will cope.

Kathy Maness, who leads a teachers' advocacy group, said the results are worse than she feared.

"It's very discouraging. We just continue to see teacher morale come down," said the executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. "We're just going to have to keep doing more with less."

There are roughly 50,000 teachers statewide.

Rex said districts would be cutting many more jobs had legislators not allowed districts to freeze teacher salaries for 2010-11. Districts can also furlough teachers up to five non-instructional days, causing many to see a pay cut, as they're given less time to prepare for class and do mandatory paperwork.

The survey indicates teachers, collectively, will be sent home without pay between 64,000 and 78,000 days, reducing their salaries up to $20 million collectively.

The survey results are based on the responses of 60 percent of the state's 85 school districts, which were then applied statewide. Rex cautioned that the numbers could be worse. After a similar survey last year, the agency predicted there would be 1,000 fewer teachers in the classroom. A later count showed there are actually 1,400 fewer teachers than last school year.

The numbers will be more clear after May 15, the deadline for handing out teacher contracts.

The other positions cut include assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians, and school secretaries, said Mark Bounds, a deputy superintendent for educator quality, noting one school is even cutting janitors and asking teachers to add those tasks to their ever-expanding roles.

The losses could be severe in 2011-12, when the federal stimulus money will run out. The magnitude will depend on the economy, Rex said, adding, "We will face a very, very serious crisis."

Rex, a Democrat running for governor, continued to urge legislators to revamp the state's piecemeal tax system. He called the job losses a consequence of delaying the kind of reform that's been talked about for years without progress.

He said legislators could still pass an increase in the state cigarette tax, unchanged at 7 cents since 1977. Rex has called for raising the tax to the national average, now $1.41 per pack, but said the 50-cent hike proposed in the Legislature is preferred to nothing.

Gov. Mark Sanford is expected to again veto any increase in the cigarette tax that's not accompanied by a corresponding decrease in another tax.

Rex said the state agency — which has 920 full-time employees, half of them in school bus maintenance — is sharing in the misery.

The Education Department has eliminated 120 jobs so far, and more layoffs are planned within the next couple of weeks. Agency employees were furloughed five days each this year and last, and will be required to do so again in the upcoming fiscal year.

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