By Barney Blakeney
Recently I reached out to Charleston County School Board member Todd Garrett as many are doing amid the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. His response was indicative of what many families are experiencing. But moreover, Garrett’s response alluded to challenges many other families face. Additionally, Garrett shared some information about the financial status of the school district. Here’s some of what he had to say:
April 13 Garrett said, “Easter is not the same sitting in front of a TV screen watching church.
“I don’t know about you, but I am ready for this economy to open back up. Twenty-five percent of my year, just disappeared as deals were cancelled over the past week. My wife is doing her best not to go crazy while trying to home school 4 kids. It requires 4 computers or devices and wifi, which is really slow when I have a zoom meeting or she does for work. I can’t imagine the gap that is going to exist for kids who don’t have all of that set-up.
“Looking at the slowing rate of growth of the virus around the country, I am ready to go back to work and something close to normal. Nearly 14 percent of (the district’s) budget comes from sales taxes. Hotel occupancy is down 82 percent last week. I know it’s serious, and some people are scared to death, you can see it in their faces. However, I think the long-term damage to the economy will be worse, if we stay shut down beyond May 1.”
Garrett and I again communicated around May 10. I asked “How do you think this past two months’ experience will affect CCSD students of color, especially in Dist. 20 and what do you think may be the most significant impact on district finances?”
Here’s what he said: “In short, I think kids across the board are not learning and the end of this year will essentially have to be taught again next year. On finances, it is hurting us and will hurt our revenue and increase our costs for years to come.
“Long answer: The school shutdown will result in a significant set-back for downtown children, particularly our poorest children. The district has been working incredibly hard to try to continue to educate kids online by ensuring that we have devices for every child in the home and daily access to wifi by sending wifi-enhanced buses to neighborhoods and apartment complexes. However, despite all of that effort, I expect that we will find that kids will have lost half of a year when we restart in the fall.
“It takes a lot of time daily for a parent to try to keep up with the work – check each child’s work packets across various software programs and multiple classroom calls per week. At the end of the day, I don’t think kids are learning anything, particularly kids who might need more interventions than just an online program. While kids will start their “next” grade in the fall, realistically, I think teachers will have to begin by teaching the second semester of the prior year’s curriculum.
“On district finances, we are spending $450,000 per week right now to feed children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. That amount is typically paid for by other children who pay for their lunch. Since we don’t have any children paying for lunches, we get the money from the federal government for the free and reduced lunch program, but the actual costs are higher than what we get by $450,000 per week, serving 6000-7000 meals three times a week.
He added, “While we are saving on electricity in buildings, we still have to maintain them and are paying all of our employees.”
Looking down the road at the district’s finances and other dynamics Garrett said, “Long-term, if we are told by the state that we can’t open as normal in the fall, it will cost us substantially more. If we have to go to staggered days or schedules, the transportation costs to the district would double at a minimum. Not to mention the ongoing cost to working families who have to now provide their own childcare when their children would normally have been at school.”
Garrett continued, “For the current fiscal year, the federal government through the CARES Act approved money to come to the district to make up for any loses. We expect about $13 million to cover a short-fall. However, long-term as this crisis turns into a financial crisis for many industries and sales tax revenue to the state is crushed as tourists are not arriving; the effect on our state and school budgets will be substantial.”
Finally Garrett added, “The state has allowed daycares to stay open, but schools have been closed. As a taxpayer, I don’t want to be charged for paying for schools next year if they aren’t operating. The current online system is a valiant effort, but kids are not learning right now,” he said.