By Alex Saitta
September 27, 2014
Question: Alex, can you give us a review of how you saw the last six months on the school board?
Alex: Sure. Iím sure you heard about this issue in February and March. Our school district is audited in a variety of ways on a regular basis. For instance, the annual financial audit is finishing up now. Our buildings are regularly reviewed for fire, safety, and construction codes. In terms of education, by law the South Carolina Department of Education accredits all public education units -- school boards, school district operations and schools, and certifies the diplomas issued by districts in the state. The School District of Pickens County is accredited by the state, and scored 3.93 (out of 4.0). The state gave our school board the highest score of 4.0 or ďAll ClearĒ, showing it is compliant with state education laws, regulations and standards. Of course, no one talked about that report
Question: Who is AdvancED that we heard so much about?
Alex: AdvancED is a private organization our school district pays a fee to accredit its schools, board and district. This is separate from the accreditation process of the Department of Education; it is voluntarily and not required by law. Colleges look at this AdvancEDís accreditation, so our district chooses to participate in its accreditation process.
Question: What did AdvancED say?
Alex: AdvancED recommended accreditation. Much like our building reviews that require we must fix a stairwell at such and such school, AdvancED listed some required actions to do with building maintenance, education issues and board governance. The administration and board then addressed their concerns and satisfied those requirements. In June the renewal of accreditation was then finalized, as we assured it would be, and it was renewed for another five year term.
Question: What was the big to-do about it in the media?
Alex: Unfortunately some groups in the community like the Concerned Citizens of Pickens County (led by Robin Nelson Miller) ran to TV news and the press screaming the district accreditation was about to be lost. Actually, the opposite was true ó like I said, AdvancED recommended accreditation. At the time, I said their claim was baseless and it proved to be such, but their false claims made a lasting impression on the public because TV never followed up on the story. TV reports the sensational, and the false claim the district was going to lose it accreditation was eye-catching and the TV news ran with it. When the accreditation was renewed, that was ho-hum, boring, so TV didnít report on that and most never heard that news.
Question: Such is our news media today. Why was the issue exaggerated?
Alex: Ben Trotter resigned from the board in January, so there was an April 1st special election to fill his vacant Liberty school board seat. During the weeks up to that election, the public discussion was quite political by the candidates and their supporters. One of the candidates actually said teachers were leaving the district in mass over the report, and the newspapers reported that false claim too. No one bothered to look at the data. Our teacher retention rates are rising.
Question: Can you share that data?
Alex: Sure. Teachers leave the system for a variety of reasons including retirement, their spouses transfer, they leave the teaching field all together or they go to another district to teach. In 2010 the teacher retention rate was 91.3%. That is, 8.7% of our teachers left in 2010. This past year the teacher retention rate was 92.9% (7.1%), so teacher retention is rising (not falling).
Question: And that is the highest it has been since 2006. How has the direction of the board changed since Trotter resigned?
Alex: First letís discuss how the board changed in November 2010 when Trotter and Jimmy Gillespie were elected, and along with myself, the board began to focus on using tax dollars more efficiently and saving some money. Having gone through the 2008 recession and being forced to make significant cuts in 2009 and 2010 because the district had no savings, the prevailing viewpoint in the 2010 to 2013 period was to save some money so when the next recession hit, we could cushion the blow.
Question: Common sense.
Alex: The second thing we focused on in the 2010 to 2013 period was putting a higher percentage of the budget into the classroom. For instance, in late 2010 the district was facing another deficit. When the administration proposed eliminating another 22 classroom teaching positions and putting even more students in the classroom, the new board said ďNoĒ and ordered the reductions be made in non-classroom areas like administration and the district office. Then when the economy rebounded, the board added back all the teaching positions cut, plus some, by fully staffing 4k classes and adding reading specialists, who work directly with students who are behind in reading.
Question: Now what is happening?
Alex: After Trotter resigned in January 2014, the next meeting there was an immediate shift. In a 3 to 2 vote (Jim Shelton, Judy Edwards, Herb Cooper voting for and Gillespie and Saitta voting against), the new board majority spent $3.6 million in savings. That is, savings that took us 3 years to accumulate was wiped out in one vote. $9.4 million in extra interest that we set aside to pay down some of the $325 million in debt, that was also spent in the same vote. At the start of the fiscal year, we built $500,000 in savings into the 2013-14 budget. In March, that was spent too. Add it up; thatís nearly $14 million in savings spent in two votes. I think actions like those will put the district back in the same situation it was in when the next recession happens to hit. Once they spend the TIF money (see below), theyíll be voting to raise property tax rates complaining there is no money.
Question: A big change in direction. What was the money spent on?
Alex: Not instruction. Most all of it went to building maintenance. Like I said, too many buildings were built, they are too large, and now it is costing millions a year in education dollars to run and maintain them. Even though the people voted down a plan half the size, they are stuck paying more and more. The systems have become so massive, the overhead to run them sucks up most of the education money. Another example, we sold the old Gettys Middle School for $300,000. The board voted 4 to 2 (Shelton, Edwards, Cooper, Brian Swords for, and Gillespie and me against) to spend most of that on two new activity buses (white buses used for things like field trips). I argued the money be spent on instructing students.
Question: Very simpleÖ
Alex: Yes, it is a very simple conservative approach. Like the family making $50,000 a year and who spends no more than that, and saves some here and there, the school district should live within its means too. And the money it does spend should be focused on direct instruction of the students, particularly in the core classes of reading, math, science and history.
Question: How did the dispute with the city of Clemson finally get settled?
Alex: Thatís a long story. There was a $10 million dispute. We tried to avoid court and settle the issue by splitting the difference. The leaders in Clemson said, ďNoĒ. The school district and county government then took the Clemson government to court and won a judgment for nearly $6 million over six years. The school districtís share of that is 55%.
Question: I understand the district has received $1.5 million so far. What is happening to that money?
Alex: It is now sitting in the bank. Given 32% of 8th graders do not read at grade level, and that is the primary reason many of them do not graduate, Iíll argue some should be saved and the rest be spent on reading. I know Iím a broken record on this, but with only 59¢ of every dollar making it to the classroom, we need more education focus.
Question: The school district has a new superintendent. Tell us about that.
Alex: First some history going back to the previous Superintendent, Dr. Kelly Pew. She was hired from Oconee County as the personnel director six years ago. The school board recognized her talent early on and promoted her to curriculum director and then to superintendent, all in two years. Then she was superintendent about 3 years.
Question: Then she went to Rock Hill. Why?
Alex: I think money had a lot to do with it. In Pickens County her salary was $120,000 and her total compensation was $141,000. Rock Hill is paying her a salary of $180,000, with total comp probably just north of $200,000. Rock Hill is outside of Charlotte and a very affluent community. There is a handful of superintendents in the state that make $200,000 a year. It is excessive in my opinion. The State Superintendent of Education makes less than that. More than 25% of Rock Hillís students are below grade level in reading, and their board is paying their superintendent $200,000? Thatís what I mean when I say the focus on instruction is not there. It is a statewide problem.
Question: You-all landed on your feet with the superintendent selection.
Alex: Good planning. In 2011 when Dr. Henry Hunt was nearing retirement, the board truly wanted to hire his replacement from within. Our district has a winning academic culture, being in the top 15 in the state. We believe those who spend years in our system and then are promoted to management are most likely to preserve that culture. Also we want to show employees, if they work hard, better their skills and perform well, they will be recognized and promoted, maybe even to superintendent one day. To this end, Dr. Hunt and the board sought out and promoted Dr. Pew to curriculum director and Dr. Danny Merck to lead administrator, realizing they were both superintendent material and would be ready for the job if they furthered/ added district office experience.
When Dr. Hunt retired, Dr. Pew was named superintendent and performed very well. Dr. Merck was prepared for the job as well. With Pew leaving, Merck has now been given the same opportunity. I credit my fellow trustees and Dr. Hunt for thinking ahead, pulling all this together, and making these decisions very easy.
Question: I read about the US Supreme Court prayer case. Tell me about that.
Alex: First letís go back a couple of years when the 4th federal circuit court (mid-eastern states) ruled prayers at the start of government meetings had to be non-sectarian (for example, to God, Heavenly Father, Lord). Based on that ruling, boards, councils and even state legislatures in SC, NC, VA, WV, and MD had to switch to non-sectarian prayers. Our school board did that, while some government bodies went to a moment of silence like the Oconee school board and others dropped prayer all together like the city council of Spartanburg.
Question: How did the US Supreme Court ruling in May change that?
Alex: The Courtís ruling in the Greece, NY prayer case reversed the 4th circuit ruling. The Court ruled such opening prayers can be sectarian (for example to Jesus, Allah, Jehovah) provided they are given by a randomly selected clergy from the community.
Question: The government officials canít lead a sectarian prayer, but a private citizen could, right?
Alex: I donít make the court rulings, but you are correct. A government official canít start a county council or school board meeting by giving a prayer to Jesus or Allah, because he is acting as an agent of the government, hence the court would see that as the government establishing a religion. However, a private clergy, asked by the government could give a similar prayer because he remains a private citizens throughout and he has the right to get up there and pray to whom he wants and how he wants.
The school board has passed a first reading of a new policy to ask a clergy to come in and give the opening prayer. It has one more reading to go.
Question: Are the test scores for 2013-14 in yet?
Alex: They are starting to trickle in from the state. Some are up, others down. When they are all in, Iíll review them in a few months when they are all in and the data has been digested.