Local lawmakers offered generalized support of the Orangeburg County School District's attempt to bounce back from its approximately $9 million 2019-20 deficit.
How exactly that will be done remains to be seen.
"We are going to have to deal with it collectively as a county, state and district," Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, said. "We have things in place and there are parameters the district has to work in."
"I would have to hear that plan and know which direction they are asking us to go and what I feel is in the best interest of parents, students, teachers and the taxpayers of Orangeburg County," Ott said. "That is a big deal. We have to watch out for the taxpayer."
Ott said the local legislative delegation met a few weeks ago with both the former and current school administration, as well Orangeburg County, to receive an update on the district's fiscal situation.
Last month, district officials announced they are working to deal with the unanticipated $8.7 million deficit.
The district is looking at a number of avenues to reduce the deficit through shifting current employees to fill district vacancies as well as seeking assistance from the state and county.
The district believes it can reduce the deficit to $4.4 million using some previously untapped funds.
District officials say the budget shortfall is due to miscalculation in tax rates that occurred during the school consolidation process when three school districts were merged into one.
The district's auditors will come to the district the week of Oct. 21-25 and the final audit is due to the S.C. Department of Education on Dec. 1.
School officials have said they will not know the final budget shortfall until the 2019-20 audit has been completed.
Ott said while he is not personally committed to promising a single course of action to help the district, the delegation will do what it can to assist.
Ott said he does feel the "new administration is working tirelessly to come up with creative ways to offset the deficit."
Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, said the district's deficit is one that could have been avoided through his suggestions of adding additional experienced personnel in the transition process.
"During consolidation, it was moving so quickly," he said. "It is not always what you do but how you do it."
But Govan said the important thing now is to move on and find a solution to the deficit.
He said when the delegation returns to Columbia in January there could be a look at perhaps tweaking the school funding formula for the district through perhaps looking at 8% monies.
Article 10 of the state's constitution sets the limit on the amount of bond indebtedness a school district can incur without voter approval. The limit is 8% of the assessed value of property in the district.
Govan also said that perhaps the S.C. Department of Education could provide forgiveness relief through its various programs geared toward districts going through financial difficulty.
"It behooves the delegation to have a conversation with the state Department of Education to see what they could do and to revisit the legislation in terms of the formula and tweak that to address the issue," Govan said.
Govan said he is confident the situation will be resolved in the long term.
"You are dealing with a deficit on the front end," he said. "As we move forward, the situation will be remedied. We have to deal with the immediate on the front end now."
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the district has shared with the delegation its plans to address the deficit but the delegation has yet to come up with any unified decision on its support for the district.
"The superintendent has been working on a plan to address the deficit and the only action that I’m aware of is the steps he’s taking to deal with the problem," she said. "I have pledged my support provided the systemic and structural issues that led to the deficit are fixed to prevent this from happening again."
Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, declined comment on what the local legislative delegation may or may not do to help the district going forward as decisions would be made by his elected successor. Matthews is not running for re-election as he announced his retirement after 46 years.
Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto could not be reached for immediate comment.
As to the district's return-to-school plan, Ott said as a parent of a public-school-age child, he understands the frustrations of parents having to home school their children.
"I think they (district) are working hard," Ott said. "It is requiring a lot of coordination between the local district and the state to make sure the PPEs are in place."
"I think the district can do a better job of communicating with parents and make sure parents know where the situation is," he said. "The frustration is compounded when people don't know what the plan is."
Ott said he does think Superintendent Shawn Foster has a "good plan" in place for bringing kids back to an in-person setting.
"They are working as quickly and safely as they can," Ott said. "The goal is to get the kids back in the classroom."
Ott said he is pleased the district has taken a phased-in approach with students who are more at-risk coming back to in-person earlier.
"Safety is paramount," Ott said.
Cobb-Hunter said the coronavirus has resulted in the school's leadership having to juggle both the safety of students, teachers and staff with the desires of parents, students and others for face-to-face instruction.
"There seemed to be a bit of stumbling out of the box, but I believe the district has worked through some of the challenges and is taking the right approach with the hybrid model," Cobb-Hunter said. "Our facilities make it difficult to practice the kind of social distancing that the CDC recommendations suggest and, of course, internet access continues to be a challenge across the district."
"I think the communication about the challenges associated with face-to-face learning could be strengthened and, as a result, lead to fewer questions," she said.
Matthews gave his thumbs up to the district's return-to-school phased-in plan.
"My advice has been always been to be cautious, protect the health of staff, children and your community," Matthews said. "I think they have been doing that so far. I support what they have been doing."
Govan praised the district's handling of instruction models in light of the coronavirus threat.
"Those decisions need to be made by the parents, those who are their child's first teacher, and the school districts," Govan said. "It is not the decision of the General Assembly or the governor or the like."
"I think the new superintendent under a very short time period has done a commendable job in terms of preparing the district," Govan said, noting the district has listened to scientists as well as parents, teachers and families in making decisions. "The best we can do is to be supportive of parents and the choices they make."
Govan said the district has provided for those families who want to have their children learn entirely virtually and for those families who want to go back to in-person.
"The state through the CARES Act has done as good a job as any to put the resources in place to make that happen," Govan said.
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