By Ray Chandler
WALHALLA — The calendar changed, but the debate remains the same: The Oconee County school board wants fiscal autonomy and the legislative delegation says no.
The debate provoked the only sharp differences of opinion between the camps today at the school board’s annual breakfast meeting with the legislators, just as it had at the last meeting, on Sept. 24, 2008.
Rep. Bill Sandifer of Seneca was adamant today that he favored keeping as is the system that calls for the Oconee County Council to approve the school district’s annual budget.
“I’m not in favor of autonomy, and I don’t think anything will change my mind,” Sandifer told school board member Buddy Herring.
During the session, the delegation members, Sandifer, Sen. Thomas Alexander of Walhalla and Rep. Bill Whitmire of Walhalla, all praised the school board and the school administration for wise management of the school system’s finances.
“If the school board has proven it’s fiscally responsible, don’t you think its time we looked at fiscal autonomy?” Herring asked.
Sandifer and Alexander said their own talks with people across the county showed the people did not want the school board to be fiscally autonomous.
The people want that check and balance, Sandifer said. And they don’t want another taxing authority in their pockets.
With the caps on taxes, it isn’t taxing ability at stake, Herring said. It’s the ability to make decisions.
Alexander said he thought the current system encouraged cooperation between the school board and the county government.
Whitmire, a retired educator, echoed Sandifer’s and Alexander’s view that the public favored the current setup, but said he would support a nonbinding question on the issue being placed on the ballot for the November 2010 general election.
The debate has been a frequent one between the two groups. Any change to fiscal autonomy for the school board would need to come through legislation introduced in the General Assembly by the delegation.
Twenty-three of the state’s 85 school districts have fiscal autonomy. In other districts, the budgets must be approved, though by no consistent means.
In 20 districts, including Oconee County, the county councils have direct approval. In other districts, the councils must approve budgets exceeding a certain limit of increase. In still others, the local legislative delegations have oversight of the school budget.
Friday, board members and administration officials stressed that the General Assembly should keep two key education priorities in mind: the mechanism of school funding and the dropout rate.
The means by which the state funds schools is too complicated, District Superintendent Mike Lucas said.
Nearly one in four Oconee County students didn’t graduate on time, Lucas said, a rate better than the state’s nearly 40 percent as a whole, but dropping out condemned many of the youth to a life of poverty, imprisonment and drug or alcohol abuse.
Alexander said the legislature was committed to supporting programs aimed at ensuring that children leaving the third grade could read at least at a third-grade level. Experience had shown, he said, that children who had difficulties reading at the third grade were candidates for eventually dropping out.
Economic development was a focus of state officials, the delegation members said, and education and producing an educated and trained workforce are crucial to any economic development and prosperity the state could hope to achieve.
When the General Assembly convenes next year, the delegation said, a number of education initiatives will be on the agenda, including those involving charter schools, a state scholarship for students who complete high school in three years and a measure designed to ensure that children of military families don’t fall behind in school.
State finances remain uncertain, Alexander said, but revenue flows, which had seen drops, seem to be flattening out.
“It’s got to be more about maximizing the use of the resources we do have,” he said.
The State Budget and Control Board, which recommended five state spending cuts over the past budget year, has so far called for only one 4 percent cut in the current budget. Oconee County schools lost about $800,000 in state funding but the loss was covered by a contingency from the school system’s reserves figured into the district’s current budget.
The delegation praised the board members and administrators for farsighted vision in fiscal management, expecially putting aside money for needed building projects.
Michael Thorsland, assistant superintendent for operations, said board members had asked administrators to look at possibly acquiring property for new schools in the lower part of the county if economic growth portended a need for them.