MYRTLE BEACH — Re-evaluating school programs and continued belt-tightening are top priorities for candidates running for the Horry County Board of Education, which will see new faces in a quarter of its seats along with some fresh perspectives.
Four districts – 3, 5, 7 and 11 – are set to have new representatives in the coming months, who will need time to learn just how the board works. Janet Graham, who was appointed for the District 7 seat left vacant by the death of Paul Hudson, will be the first of those to be seated when she is sworn in at Monday night’s board meeting. Janice Morreale sealed up District 5 after besting incumbent Paul Peterson in the June primary, and a new representative will be appointed for District 3 in January to replace Vice Chair Joe DeFeo, who will become the new board chairman.
DeFeo and Morreale are running unopposed, as are Kay Loftus in District 4 and John Poston in District 8.
Newcomers Levon Martin and Jeffrey Garland are vying for incumbent Trent Hardee’s District 11 seat after being removed from the Republican primary ballot because of state Supreme Court decisions on filing deadlines. The two had to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters in their district in order to run and will be listed on the ballot as petition candidates, not by party.
In District 9, incumbent David Cox faces a challenge from Ronald Bessant, who would be a fifth new board member if elected. However, Bessant does have previous school board experience, having served on the board from 1990 to 2008.
As chairman, DeFeo will help set the agenda for the board and said he wants to make sure members stay on course to be fiscally conservative and to continue as they have over the past four years in not raising taxes and cutting them wherever possible.
“We have almost 40,000 students, so it’s understandable we have more programs than a lot of districts,” DeFeo said. “I believe we need to continue to look at our current programs to decide if they are worth keeping, and, if they are, what programs we need to cut in order to pay for them.”
Examples of district programs include the Scholars Academy, which serves high-achieving students who take a combination of advanced placement and college-level courses at Coastal Carolina University, and Connect, a model for students who are at least a year behind and deemed at risk of not graduating. More recent initiatives include the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program, which is now in its second year, and the addition last fall of reading interventionists, who focus on providing immediate assistance to struggling readers of all ages. The interventionists are just one part of a larger literacy initiative that includes a number of classroom reading programs, such as Imagine It! and CompassLearning.
Poston, District 8, said board members see so many programs that they know will be good for students and good for their communities, but with the economy in shambles, budget concerns aren’t going to go away for a very long time, and some hard questions need to be answered.
“The fundamental question is, ‘Who are we as Horry County Schools?’ ” said Poston, who said schools have been a catchall for everything and have expanded services to provide everything from food and clothing to adult education. “What we have to do is define what function we perform, and the board is struggling with this. They are all really good things, but can we do it all?”
In July, the board passed a motion by DeFeo that is meant to ensure the district has the money for new initiatives. It requires funding to be addressed at the same time a new program or project is up for board approval, and DeFeo said other avenues, such as grants, can be pursued when needed.
Like DeFeo, Cox, the incumbent from District 9, believes that funding and fiscal responsibility to taxpayers are important challenges for the board and said in an email the board has reduced taxes and cut spending in his time as a member, while still improving student scores. He said spending money in the right places will save money, as well as improve education.
Garland, a District 11 candidate and son of current board chairman Will Garland, also agreed that evaluating programs and cutting those that are ineffective are essential steps toward cutting expenses. He said raising taxes is “an absolute last resort,” but the board should avoid using reserve funds to balance the budget because even though the money is there now, eventually it will run out.
The board used $5.8 million from its reserve for this year’s budget, leaving a balance of almost $21 million, which is over and above the required minimum balance. Those funds covered the cost of increases for teachers and other employees, as well as the original budget deficit of $1.1 million.
Martin, Garland’s challenger, said he didn’t think raising taxes is an option for increasing district funding, and that the board needs to take a hard look at all aspects of the school system, from maintenance and school buses, to items such as fuel costs, even though they are out of the board’s control.
Martin said self-examination is needed in evaluating district programs to ensure there are no special interests associated with any one in particular. He said those that are not producing the desired results of the board should be eliminated to open up new opportunities.
As a new member to the board, Morreale, District 5, said she will need to learn more about all of the district’s programs, although she is familiar with Imagine It!, which her son is currently using at school, and the literacy efforts to get children reading on grade level. She said the effectiveness of programs should be re-evaluated, as she has heard mixed reviews about Imagine It!, and she wants to make sure that in that process, the board gets feedback from teachers and possibly students, because they are the ones who work with the programs daily.
In re-evaluating programs, however, Bessant, candidate for District 9, said he doesn’t want concerns about cost to overshadow what some of them are doing for children, especially those who are low-achievers. He said the district has great programs that help students who perform above average, but some initiatives for struggling students need more time to develop and reach expected goals.
“Sometimes we don’t realize that the money spent on those children who are at a lower level is worth it even when their growth is not what we think it should be,” Bessant said. “Those children are not going to [progress] like we think they should, but if they have moved [up] significantly from where they started at a flat line, that’s a success.”
Bessant said he thinks it is important for board members to visit as many schools across the district as possible to assess and compare what works, as well as gain new ideas for their individual districts. He said seeing what happens at a cross-section of schools makes all members better equipped to work hard for all district children and families.
Kay Loftus could not be reached to comment for this story.
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.