COLUMBIA — South Carolina schools chief Mick Zais asked legislators Wednesday for more money for textbooks, school buses, and teacher supplies.
The Republican superintendent also wants districts to increase teacher pay, though his request doesn't increase the $2,012 per-student allocation that's a primary source for salaries. How to pay for a required salary increase is a local decision, Zais said, reiterating his belief that district administrations need cutting.
“In far too many districts, they prioritize administration ahead of teachers,” he said while presenting his budget request to a House Ways and Means panel.
School advocates say they're concerned some districts won't be able to fund the required step increase.
Zais' request includes an additional $19.2 million for textbooks and other instructional materials, for a total of $53 million. Zais notes the state has adopted new standards in math, reading and social studies since 2010, and new science standards will be adopted later this year. The Legislature suspended money for new textbooks during recession-era budget cuts.
“New standards require new materials aligned to them,” Zais said.
He also requested $34 million to buy enough new school buses to comply with a 2007 law – ignored by legislators during the downturn – that calls for a 15-year replacement cycle.
Last month, Zais announced the arrival of 342 new buses being distributed statewide to replace models up to 28 years old. Nearly 90 percent of the buses' $28 million cost came from lottery funds that legislators designated during the current and last fiscal years, mostly from unclaimed prizes. The remaining $3.5 million was collected partly through selling as scrap decommissioned buses already stripped for parts.
South Carolina is the only state to own and maintain a statewide bus fleet for public schools, though local property taxes still foot much of their operating costs.
Gov. Nikki Haley, continuing an idea pushed unsuccessfully by her predecessor, wants to transfer full responsibility of buses to districts, for them to fully run their own fleet or contract for services.
Zais said he doesn't oppose the idea, but until the Legislature acts, the state needs to guarantee students a safe ride.
The Legislature has continually punted a decision over the years by forming new study committees.
“South Carolina's bus fleet didn't become the oldest bus fleet in the nation overnight. It occurred because of inconsistent funding in procurement and replacement,” Zais said.
He also asked for an additional $12 million to maintain buses that still date as far back as 1988. When the fiscal year starts July 1, 93 percent of the bus fleet will not be under manufacturer warranties, and repairs on old vehicles are costly, he said.
Zais also seeks $400,000 to fully fund the $275 reimbursement teachers can receive for classroom supplies.
“It may not be a huge amount of funding,” Zais said. But that “money is important to support classroom teachers.”
Zais calls for at least maintaining the so-called base student cost at $2,012 per student. Due to student growth, that would require an additional $19.5 million.
The Legislature put an additional $153 million in that main funding source for public schools in the current budget.
That allowed some districts to catch up on salary steps for teachers after years of budget cuts.
But the state's minimum salary schedule for teachers remains out of whack. That's because, in an effort to save jobs over the previous two years, legislators allowed school districts to suspend salary increases that state law otherwise requires teachers receive for each additional year in the classroom.
The Education Oversight Committee recommends overhauling the salary schedule.