Less funding forces sacrifices at area schools

At last week's finale for Georgetown County School District's Gifted and Talented BEACH Summer Arts program at Georgetown High School, parents had the chance to see what their children accomplished in just four days.

The students used to have a month.

Though many programs have been eliminated all together, the "broad education and creative happenings" program is one that has been reduced because of school budget cuts.

In fact, it has been reduced to the point that the organizers couldn't even afford to set up tents and have music and refreshments this year, said Jon Tester, executive director for elementary education.

And the pain isn't over yet.

School boards have struggled to balance their budgets for 2010-11, and while districts are feeling the pinch, the outlook for 2011-12 is even worse.

"After next year is when we're really going to be impacted," said Cindy Ambrose, chief academic officer with Horry County Schools.

Tester said a point came at which organizers weren't even sure BEACH was feasible any more.

But he said Superintendent Randy Dozier chose a condensed version of the program that serves about 185 kids - rising sixth-graders through 12th-graders. Students are nominated for an audition process and take specialized instruction in one of four disciplines: singing, strings, drama or visual arts.

"There was such an outpouring of concern and disappointment when we made the recommendation [to reduce the program]," Tester said. "I received phone calls and visits from the parents of these students. People understand the need for it. ... It's our hope that as time marches on, we can figure out a way to resume the full program."

In Horry County, everything is being done to shelter programs, but the budget has forced a number of adjustments for the upcoming year, Ambrose said.

"We haven't made decisions [for 2011-12], but I don't know how long we'll be able to protect programs. We're ill at ease thinking about what the future holds," she said.

The district is increasing class size to 26 at the middle and high school levels, and she said the district has eliminated the ACT and SAT scholarship programs, which offered $500 for top scores and was incentive for students to take the tests and do their best work.

Another casualty was the scholars' banquet, which recognized outstanding achievement at the middle and high school levels and represents a savings of $32,000.

"The children invited their families and two guests," Ambrose said. "It was a very nice event where we were encouraging students to work hard."

The district also won't fund some counseling programs this year, she said. The Waccamaw Mental Health program provided a counselor at some schools and gave mental health services to students, as well as families. Reducing and eliminating some of the counseling programs will save $570,000.

Ambrose said the schools will spend $75,000 less for elementary science kits, which were provided for each class, relocate preschool programs to reduce overhead, and reduce some bus drivers' midday employment to cut half a million dollars.

"I think our board and our communities have expected exemplary performance. They've come to expect great things, [but under these circumstances,] to try to deliver great things, that makes us very ill at ease," Ambrose said. "We want to be a premier school system, to make sure our students can be prepared nationally and internationally, but with such hard economic times, it's going to take its toll on students."