CCPC: More Responses
By Alex Saitta
January 24, 2015
The Concerned Citizens of Pickens County (CCPC Ė Robin Nelson Miller spokeswoman) have been been saying a lot lately, and whenever they do that, you can count on a lot of mis-information, incorrect facts and misleading statements. Below is the latest from CCPC. They have blocked me and others from writing on their Facebook page, so Iíll respond here.
In the Greenville News Eleanor Hare (click here) and Heidi Williams (click here) wrote letters advocating higher school taxes, stating beginning teacher pay was $3,000 less than surrounding districts, school performance has fallen, the classrooms are overcrowded, and property taxes hadnít been raised in 11 years. I followed up with a letter to the editor that rebutted their letters point by point (in bold below). In turn, CCPC then commented on my letter on their Facebook page. I then rebutted their comments (in bold below).
From my letter to the editor -- Alex Saitta: When I read the letters of those advocating higher school taxes in Pickens County, I wondered if these individuals actually looked at the data. Academic performance is not falling in Pickens County, nor is it low. Pickens ranks seventh in the state out of 85 districts on the SAT. Our PASS ranking is 20th. The graduation rate has risen significantly from 71.2% in 2010 to 80.4% this past year.
CCPC response: We do have an EXCELLENT school district, which is why we are doing everything we can to protect it from further damage by you and your constituents. Dr. Danny Merck presented you with a plan back in 2011 to improve the graduation rate, and promised an on-time graduation rate of 80% in 5 years. He delivered those results in 3 years, an achievement that proves not only his ability to deliver, but that of our teachers and administrators as well.
My rebuttal to that: At least CCPC agrees with me that academic performance is on the rise. Dr. Merck spent one year in the district office, at the end of the Dr. Henry Hunt administration in 2011. The graduation rate has improved from 71.2% in 2010 to 80.4% in 2014. These long-term gains were seeded in the Dr. Lee DíAndrea administration going back to 2006. The 80% goal was set in the Hunt administration in 2011. When the board/ administration (Dr. Hunt, Dr. Pew, Dr. Merck and the curriculum staff) was working on boosting the plan, Dr. Merck came up with the idea of a specific goal of 80% in 5 years. Dr. Hunt asked him to make the initial presentation to the school board. At that time, Dr. Pew, who was the curriculum director, was creating initiatives to reach the 80% rate.
Dr. Hunt then retired, Dr. Pew was named the superintendent and Dr. Merck left the district office. Dr. Pew with board approval then implemented the ideas she was working on. Dr. Merck was not up at the district that long to have a system wide impact on the graduation rate. Dr. Merck was a high school principal and contributed directly to increasing the graduation rate, mainly at Easley High. The board deserves credit too because it turned Dr. Hunt and Dr. Pewís focus to improving the rate. CCPC just looked at the video of Dr. Merckís presentation and drew the conclusion that it was Dr. Merck driving the situation. It was much broader than that as I explained.
CCPC goes on to ask: Alex Saitta, do you even visit our schools? You should visit the Pickens County Career and Technology Center! It is amazing. They have partnered with several local manufacturers and offer our students apprenticeships in innovative fields that will enable them to work and earn above-average incomes right out of high school. We have health science programs that are preparing our students for the biotech industry right after high school or for the workforceÖ.
My rebuttal to that: I visit schools all the time. I visited three before the Christmas break and another this week and plan to visit two more the next week or so. I've visited the Career Center numerous times. The results/ new direction of the Career Center is the product of discussions and decisions going on as far back as 2006. For years many administrators and board members (including me) have been saying not every student needs to have a college degree, and the focus on college prep needs to shift a bit. We need more of a focus technical schools Ė Iíve written countless times we need to make the career path from middle school, to high school/ career center to technical school to a job much clearer. Gosh, when Tri-County was looking for a Pickens campus and our district was about to build a new Career Center, I suggested we build one campus for both SDPC and Tri-County Tech. There were so many turf battles going on back then, that never happen. I canít count how many conversations I had with Ronnie Booth of Tri-County about working more together, long before Robin Nelson Miller was even thinking about our school district. Jim Shelton was another one pushing such education and business partnerships. The Career Center stepped up its effort to partnership with business and Tri-County Tech after it had a change in leadership. Dr. Pew had a lot of influence in that too. Now Brian Swords in working on furthering those partnerships.
Back to my letter to the editor -- Alex Saitta: Starting teachers in Pickens donít make $3,000 less a year than teachers in surrounding districts. A first year teacher with a bachelorís degree in Pickens earns $893 less than Anderson 1, $1,040 less than Anderson 4, $1,381 less than Greenville and $1,651 less than Oconee.
CCPC response: The math is simple Mr. Saitta: The gap is smaller in the first year of teaching. In year two, the gap widens because surrounding districts offer step increases and we donít. It widens again in year three.... Good job on the cherry-picking. For the record, we know that YOU know this already. You presented your facts the way you did in order to deliberately mislead people.
My rebuttal to that: I didnít cherry pick the data. Eleanor Hare wrote in her letter, beginning teachers in Pickens County are paid $3,000 less than surrounding districts. I responded directly to her point which was untrue. I provided the exact figures for starting teachers in my letter. No one disputes our teacher pay is a bit lower, but I explained why in my letterÖ Our district built 7 new schools, renovated another 20, and it is spending $26 million more a year on buildings. When you spend so much on buildings, the rest of the budget will be squeezed. Moving a step at a time, I believe the board will work to narrow the pay gap this budget session.
CCPC response: We enroll almost 17,000 students Mr. Saitta. Our total school tax rate is 165 mills. Thatís 40 to 140 mills less than in Greenville, Anderson and Spartanburg districts Mr. Saitta! We have the 14th largest school district in SC, the 10th highest index of taxpaying ability, the 15th lowest total school millage rate and the 4th lowest per pupil spending. You like to speak in millions because you think poor, uneducated southernersí heads spin when you do that. You underestimate the citizens of Pickens County! We built beautiful new schools with a vision of excellence because we expect Pickens County to grow. The renovations were necessary. When you say we are spending $26 million more a year on buildings, please specify.
My rebuttal to that: The leaders of Concerned Citizens of Pickens County feel tax rates are too low. They have advocated for higher general sales taxes for schools, a higher general sales tax for gasoline, a higher gasoline tax, a higher operations property tax for schools and a higher debt tax for schools. Oconeeís school tax rates are lower, and CCPC left that out, and instead went all the way over to Spartanburg to stretch their point.
Answering CCPCís question, the bond payment is $18 million higher since the building program, the district is spending $3 million more a year to run, clean and repair on a day to day basis the extra $800,000 sqf in building space, plus it is spending about $5 million more a year on replacing HVACís, roofs and repaving. That adds up to $26 million. The district chose to put the emphasis on buildings, hence, pay and most everything else has been squeezed.
Back to my letter to the editor -- Alex Saitta: Our classrooms are not overcrowded. According to the state report cards, our 23-to-1 student-teacher ratio in core subjects is below Greenville and Anderson 1, and higher than Oconee and Anderson 4, so we are in the middle.
CCPC asks: What is your point? There are classrooms in your precinct with as few as 10 students whereas teachers at Forest Acres and in Clemson and Central may have 26. We realize that student-teacher ratios are not an issue in your precinct and that the spending per pupil in your precinct is much higher than the national average. What are you doing to increase enrollment as well as the tax base in your precinct Mr. Saitta? The rest of us are paying the price of your neglect.
My response to that: My point? I was directly responding to Eleanor Hareís letter where she called our classrooms overcrowded. Twenty-three students in a class is not overcrowded, and 23 to 1 about average with surrounding districts. CCPC advocates closing the smaller schools which tend to have smaller class sizes (not as low as 10 in a class, though). I donít support closing the country schools for are a variety of reasons; Ambler Elementary, for instance, is the top performing elementary school in the county.
Iím not doing anything to increase enrollment. CCPC calls that neglect. Do they want me to encourage newlyweds in District 3 to copulate more often, is that it? The bottom line is there are no jobs in the northern part of the county, so the 25 to 60 year olds needing to work choose to live elsewhere. Raising tax rates on business (CCPCís position) will not help job creation in my district or the county as a whole, hence will depress school enrollment in the long-run.
Back to my letter to the editor -- Alex Saitta: Itís also untrue school property taxes have not been raised in 11 years. In 2007 taxes were raised 39 mills, 2 mills in 2011, and next year taxes will likely rise again due to the rising bond payment schedule passed baked into the cake when the building plan was passed.
CCPC response: Taxes on school operations went down 9 mills in 2006 and down one more mill in 2010. Taxes on our school debt went down 2 mills in 2008, down 6 mills in 2009, and down another mill and a half in 2012. Shall I forward you the public document titled, "The School District of Pickens County Tax Millage History"? School tax millage rates have gone DOWN many more times than up in Pickens County since 2003. We're going to have to increase taxes just to make an honest man out of you! Your job as a school board trustee is not to absolve taxpayerís of their taxpaying responsibilities. Thatís what legislators are for. Your job as a school board trustee is to validate the needs of our school district and then to provide the funding. PeriodÖ You are deliberately neglecting the needs of our school district to save yourself a couple of hundred dollars per year in taxes on the million-plus dollars of rental homes you have purchased in Pickens County since 2011. Ö Well Mr. Saitta, as much as we'd love to have rental property owners on our side of the issue, we have to point out that in real estate, property taxes are a part of the costs associated with doing business. If you can't afford the property taxes on your rental properties in a county with one of the lowest property tax rates in the nation, then you can't afford to be in that business.
My rebuttal to that: How do they think that $387 million in new buildings were paid for? There was a massive tax increase. There are two types of school property taxes that CCPC doesnít understand or want to recognize. One tax rate is for operations or to run the schools on a day to day basis (paying for salaries, turning on the lights, the insurance bill), and that rate has been relatively stable. Two, is the tax rate for school debt, which has been increased significantly and I pointed that out in my letter to the editor. CCPC only points out the stable school operations tax rate and based on half the story makes the false claim school taxes havenít gone up. When you look at school operations and school debt taxes, total school taxes have gone up a lot.
In CCPCís eyes my job isnít to represent those in my district who are business owners, seniors with no children in schools, or single people. CCPC solely sees my job as getting the money the school district requests. What is the point of having a school board then? Just hand the check book to the district administration. If CCPC was correct, only district employees or parents with children in school would be able to vote in school elections. The job of the board is to balance the needs of the school district with the means of all the taxpayers. It isnít to give the school district everything they want. Nor is it to drive the taxpayersí tax rates down to zero. It is a balance.
Iím not neglecting anything. I just believe the district should first better utilize the money it already has, and then and only then consider raising property taxes again. Iíve had that position ever since Iíve been on the board in 2004. I bought some rental properties in 2012 and 2013, and that hasnít changed my point of view. CCPC knows nothing of my annual income/ net worth, or what I can or can not afford. If CCPC got its way on all the tax increases it has advocated (general sales tax for roads, general sales tax for schools, gasoline tax for roads, property tax for school operations and also school debt), it wouldnít affect my spending patterns or how I live, so my situation isnít factored into my decisions or how I vote. I have the extra income/ wealth to pay much higher taxes. Remember, I lived in New York and was able to pay $10,000 a year in property taxes. Unfortunately, CCPCís tax increases would squeeze many of those in my district, so that is my concern.
Back to my letter to the editor -- Alex Saitta: A lack of funding? According to the 2006 audit, the school district spent $122.1 million in 2005-06 school year. This past school year the district spent $171.8 million.
CCPC response: We realize you intend to shock folks with your numbers. We built new schools, so obviously, our annual expenditures have increased.
My rebuttal to that: Again, this was in response to Eleanor Hareís letter, which made the claim we are not spending enough on our schools. The figures I cited in my letter are from the financial audit, and show how much school spending has grown. What is shocking to me is how those on the left then say our schools are being underfunded by the citizens of Pickens County. Most of that massive growth in spending has been on buildings, but spending on day to day operations has gone up as well. However, whether it is being spent on school buildings or being spend on what is going on inside the schools, the taxpayer is giving a lot more money to our schools over all.
CCPC finishes up with this: In previous years, when the budget shortfalls were in the $5 Million range, Alex Saitta's "solution" to the $5 Million funding crisis were things like turning of the electricity in the summer and eliminating sick day pay for teachers, solutions that will generate a mere fraction of the revenue needed by our school district. This is exactly what he is doing right now. He is once again advocating for the elimination of sick pay for our teachers and suggests the Clemson TIF ($500,000) as a solution for our current $5 Million funding crisis. The recession is over. It will be absolutely shameful if we cut 100 jobs when we are more than capable of providing the local funding necessary to meet the needs of our school district!
My response: The district never had a $5 million budget short-fall. CCPC just makes up the numbers. The worst deficit was about $3 million for the budget. That was when the 2-year Obama Stimulus expired, and local districts lost a lot of stop-gap federal money. When you look back at the last 7 years, year over year spending on schools on day to day basis (operations) fell 2 years. They were the school years of 2010-11 and 2011-12.
What CCPC claims Iím saying/ doing now, is also way off the mark. Iím not talking about cutting 100 jobs. I never said that and CCPC is just making it up. In my opinion the moderators at the CCPC are cowards. They write all these untrue thing about me and other conservatives, and then block those individuals from rebutting those false claims.