What Price Learning?

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

p>Why are the schools in Anderson County, South Carolina, pinched for money? How has the quality of education suffered as a result of the schools' underfunding? These were the key questions addressed by the Anderson Independent-Mail in 13 stories that ran from May 31 to June 17, 1987. Reporters Anne Hartung and Kathryn Smith dug into the politics of state and local funding, examined the programs and facilities of the county's five school systems, and then covered the controversy generated by the series itself, as parents began packing board meetings to seek answers to their concerns. 



ANDERSON COUNTY — George Seaborn, the superintendent of Anderson School District 1, likens the financial problems in Anderson County schools to the fate of a freezing man. 

The first body parts to go numb and useless with the cold are the extremities, the fingers and toes, he said. In the academic body, foreign languages, the arts and orchestra are least necessary to a school's survival. 

Next the hands and feet, arms and legs lose their circulation as the body draws its heat to the vital organs. The school equivalent is instructional supplies and equipment and building repair and maintenance. 

"The last thing the body lets go is the heart and the brain," Seaborn said. "We're down to the heart and brain." 

The vital organs in the school system are the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic and the staff to teach those subjects, Seaborn said. 

The financial climate in Anderson County school districts has been getting colder by the year, area superintendents said. 

"If all we want in Anderson County is basic reading, writing and arithmetic, and nothing else, we probably can struggle along and provide that," Anderson School District 4 Superintendent Bill Chaiken said. "If we want life enhancement programs and experiences for our kids, we need to do more." 

Throughout the budget wrangling that has marked the last few months of school in Anderson County, the question often has been asked, "Do you think the schools need more money?" 

But perhaps Anderson taxpayers and voters need to answer more basic questions first: What is a quality school? How much are we willing to pay? What price learning? 


The roots of the current school funding problems are in state finances. But local funding traditions have exacerbated the situation. 

For four of the past six years, the state has adopted mid-year budget cuts that have devastated local school budgets, the five Anderson school superintendents said. 

Anderson School District 5, for example, lost more than $500,000 to midyear cuts between November and February. The fiscal year started July 1, 1986. That is equal to the amount raised by nearly five mills in local taxes. A tax rate of one mill equals ten cents per $100 of property value in the taxing district. 

Another alarming trend has been the rapid rise in the cost of school employee fringe benefits paid by school districts. 

Prior to 1983, the state paid 100 percent of fringe benefits, such as insurance and workmen's compensation, under the Education Finance Act. In the Williamston-based District 1, that cost escalated from nothing in 1984 to $331,000 in 1987. That equals about $8 million in local taxes. 

School districts have no choice but to foot the bill for programs the state doesn't fund. After all, it's the law. But as Anderson District 2 Superintendent Roger Burnett knows, money doesn't grow on trees. 

"It's frustrating fooling with this all the time," he said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm out on the street with a cup for the school district." 

Many people, including South Carolina's governor, believe the state should overhaul its philosophy for funding state programs. "Let me say it's not right for us to mandate programs we don't pay for," Gov. Carroll Campbell said in his January State of the State address. "When we do this, the school districts must pay for them and the cost goes back to property owners." 

Yet the S.C. General Assembly was quick to kill two proposals that would relieve districts from paying for fringe benefits and state-mandated programs that the state won't fund. 

Sen. Alex Macaulay, D-Wallhalla, laments the failure of his fringe benefits bill. "We have to bring some order to our education system," he said. "All we have been doing is increasing the programs and passing the buck to the local districts. It's about time we do something about it. But what has happened in the General Assembly is a recognition that something needs to be done but no one wants to do it this year. They want to study it before something is done." 


After the state, treasury, the second biggest source of money for Anderson County schools is local taxes. The Anderson County Board of Education has the power to raise local school taxes by five mills a year. For a person with a $50,000 home that would amount to $10 in property taxes. But county board members have shown an unwillingness to increase local tax support for a school funding crisis they think is blown out of proportion. 

"You've got some powers-that-be hollerin' wolf when there's no wolf there," county board Chairman Fred Dobbins said. 

Yet, the situation was dire enough in May that all five Anderson County superintendents sought an audience with the Anderson County Legislative Delegation to ask for an amendment that would empower the county board to raise taxes more than five mills. 

The move failed, largely because the county board would not endorse the proposal. As a result, local school officials will present 1987-88 budgets with deficits that exceed the dollars generated by a five-mill tax increase under current assessed property values. The county board may have to decide where districts will trim, superintendents said. Local superintendents said the county board could have alleviated problems caused by state-mandated programs. "If we'd consistently gotten four or five mills over about the last five years, we'd be in much better shape," Anderson School District 4 Superintendent Bill Chaiken said. 

County board members G. Mell Gerrard, J. R. Wingo, Hugh Durham and Dobbins have said they believe Anderson taxpayers should not take up the state's funding burden. 

Political finger-pointing has become the order of the day as political leaders squabble over who should foot the education bill. In the meantime, Anderson school districts have been making cuts in an attempt to balance their budgets. 

A confused public sits on the sidelines trying to figure out how serious the schools' problems are, what action they should take, and who they should go to for help. Parents fear that the future of their children may be getting lost in the political shuffle. 

"I perceive a line drawn down the middle with the districts on one side and the [county] Board of Education on the other, with our children caught in the middle," Anderson county parent Jill Powell said. "If taxes have to be raised, for God's sake raise them." 

One thing is certain. Although the money situation in Anderson County may be slow to change, the demands on education are evolving rapidly. 

Anderson County used to be a place where people could drop out of school in the eighth grade and earn enough money to raise and support a family, buy a home and a car. That's not the case anymore. 

"I've heard the saying, 'It was good enough for my dad and my granddad,"' said Anderson School District 5 parent Steve DeWeil, who is chairman of Concerned Parents for Quality Education in District 5. "I don't think dad and granddad had to compete with cheap labor from Taiwan." 

As the demand for better job skills has grown, so has the task of the public school system. 

"If we don't educate our youth, who's going to run things when we're too old to get up the stairs?" Anderson School District 5 Trustee Mack Burriss said. "If we don't educate our youth, we'll pay a bitter price." 


Pay, Workload Raise Teacher Turnover Rate 

By Kathryn Smith 


For years, Pendelton High School teacher Sybil Fanning has been known as "The Fab." The math and science teacher is reputed to be faster than a speeding calculator, with the ability to write with one hand on the board while she erases with the other. 

Fellow teacher Claire Warren describes her as "more than dedicated, amazingly patient and unquestionably professional." 

But after 17 years, Sybil Fanning has had it with the teaching overload — four different courses this year, ranging from physics to general math — and with School District 4's meager spending on instruction. It ranks last among the state's 92 districts. She will begin working at Seneca High School in August, where she will teach two classes of college prep chemistry. It will cut in half the time she spends on class preparation each evening. 

"Obviously we're very sad to see her go," said Dr. Bill Chaiken, superintendent of schools in District 4. "She is an excellent teacher and school districts like to be able to retain experienced teachers. It points up the fact that if school districts can't maintain adequate resources in terms of teachers' salaries and equipment, eventually they'll go where they can get them." 

His words are seconded by Mrs. Warren, who is head of the English department at Pendelton High. "It just becomes a struggle, and it becomes demoralizing when it seems we're not asking for much and yet it's denied us," she said. 

Salaries generally make up more than 80 percent of the budgets. The state of South Carolina pays a minimum salary to teachers, then each district decides on a supplement. Seventeen districts pay only the minimum. 

The supplement in Chaiken's district is the lowest in the upstate area and Mrs. Fanning believes the pay scale led two Pendelton High math teachers to quit last year. 

The teacher turnover rate in Chaiken's district last year exceeded 15 percent, and it bothers him. "We know some of our people are leaving for districts that pay more," he said. The district authorized a $500 pay supplement for teachers in its new budget, but Chaiken doubts it will be approved by the Anderson County Board of Education. 

Williamston-based Anderson School District 1 also has a 15 percent turnover, but Superintendent George Seaborn doesn't consider it a problem. The district ranks in the state's top 20 for pay, and can offer a new teacher $1,000 a year more than Chaiken's district "We're able to attract good teachers," he said. 

When it comes to recruiting, Anderson County schools benefit from the proximity of Clemson University. Clemson Education School Dean James E. Matthews said all of the Anderson County districts are looked upon favorably by graduating teachers, and all five local superintendents say they get a number of applications from CU grads for jobs. However, they say some specialties are hard to fill, especially math, science, library science and special education. 

Teaching is dominated by women, and opportunities for women have broadened since Sybil Fanning joined the Pendleton High faculty in 1970. Her three daughters are talented in math and science too, but none of them has chosen teaching as a career. She was the senior member of the Pendleton High teaching staff, and wonders where new math and science teachers will come from. 

Wallace Reid, superintendent of Anderson School District 5, said he is seeing experienced teachers with advanced degrees leave, and they tend to be replaced with recent college graduates with little or no experience. Twenty years ago District 5 was the fourth-ranked district in the state for salaries. Now it ranks in the bottom third. 

District 5's budget includes a two percent increase in the local supplement, but the budget has not been approved by the Anderson County Board of Education. 

School districts' ability to raise teacher salaries has been complicated by a salary-related expense: fringe benefits. For the past three years, the state has been expecting local districts to pay a bigger portion of fringes. 

District 5 paid $5,000 in local dollars toward fringes in 1983, Reid said. In the coming year's budget, the Figure will be $1 million. "And that's what's put all the districts in the state behind the eightball," Reid said. District 5 could balance its new budget without a tax increase if the state would fully fund fringe benefits, he said. 


Of course, money isn't everything, and for people with the same experience and educational background, the gap between the highest paying teaching job in the state and the lowest is less than $1,500 a year. 

Mrs. Fanning said she doesn't even know what her salary will be at Seneca High School. Her major complaint was her workload, caused by limits on staffing. She loved teaching chemistry and physics, but felt inadequate to inspire the less-motivated students in general math. 

Mrs. Warren said a similar situation exists in Pendleton High's English department, and it affects quality of instruction. If another English teacher isn't hired this summer, seven courses will be taught by teachers outside of the department. That means students will be learning English from people whose educational specialties include coaching, social studies and French. Often, the basic-course students are the ones with the out-of-department teachers, she said. 

"I really don't believe that it's salary as much [that causes teachers to leave]," she said. ''It's a sense that we're professionals and should be properly staffed." 

Classroom-size limits also are a teacher concern and a major reason for higher spending on personnel even though the number of students in many districts has fallen. In District 5, West Market Elementary School teacher Susan Hopkins worries the district won't be able to continue its commitment to smaller classes. 

"The district needs to be praised in trying to keep the classroom size manageable," she said, noting that the school's classes of 22 to 23 children are below the state maximum size. "We feel real fortunate, because we feel like a lot more quality teaching goes on." 

There are arguments, however, that the state and federal mandates and local decisions to decrease classroom size aren't really cost-effective. 

Roger Meiners, an economics professor at Clemson University, cites numerous studies that found smaller pupil/teacher ratios had no influence on educational quality. Some studies even found a negative influence, he noted. 

Many of these decisions have been made for the districts, however, and they have no choice but to comply to state and federal rules. 

Roger Burnett, superintendent of the Belton-based Anderson School District 2, gives the classroom teacher credit for Anderson County schools' ability to have good test scores on relatively limited budgets. "If you consistently rank in the lower third in the state in [local tax] effort and rank in the top third on tests, that's an indicator someone has used money wisely," he said. "It happens in the classroom. The classroom teacher makes or breaks achievement." 

At Pendleton High School, future students will miss out on at least one of those classroom teachers. "I told her she couldn't go away because she had to teach me physics my senior year," a dark-eyed girl in Sybil Fanning's third period chemistry class said last week. 

But Sybil Fanning has made up her mind. 


1985-86 Annual Salary For Teachers With B.A. and No Experience 

District                    Salary           State Rank

Anderson 1            $16,226                19

Anderson 2            $15,902                30

Anderson 3            $15,673                43

Anderson 4            $15,212                72

Anderson 5            $15,524                54

Spartanburg 7        $16,603                 1


District Median   $15,610 

State Median        $15,094

School teachers' salaries in Anderson County vary widely depending on the supplement paid by local districts. The lowest-paying district is District 4, which ranks 72 in 92 districts. Spartanburg 7 pays new teachers more than any district in the state. 

Source: S.C. Department of Education