South Carolina schools caught in stimulus crossfire

Apr 6, 2009

Public school children in South Carolina are caught in the middle of the high-profile debate over stimulus funding. Gov. Mark Sanford plans to reject money the school system says could save 700 jobs. 

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has been against the federal stimulus package from the beginning, because he says it's digging the nation deeper into debt. But of the $8 billion stimulus dollars South Carolina is expected to receive, Sanford only has power to accept or reject about 10 percent of it. As it happens, most of that 10 percent - which is a total of about $700 million - is earmarked for public schools.

State education officials say the money could save 700 jobs on the chopping block because of the recession. But Sanford wants to spend it paying down the state's debt. "If you won the lottery and you were a prudent individual, you wouldn't spend all the money," Sanford explained on South Carolina's News 19 TV. "You'd put some money aside to paying down the mortgage or paying off credit cards. And our state shouldn't be any different."

Sanford says he'll only take the $700 million stimulus money if the state legislature puts an equal amount toward the state debt. Legislative leaders say that's unlikely, given the huge budget deficit they're dealing with.

Meanwhile, State Education Department spokesman Jim Foster says time is running out for local districts who have to renew teacher contracts by May 15. "Districts have to know now if they're going to make their budgets," says Foster. "And anything that drags this on any longer is gonna have the practical effect of districts making a budget that is their worst case scenario - and that means cutting these jobs."

Governor Sanford believes school districts might save many of those jobs by being more efficient with existing money. But the South Carolina Education Association's Sheila Catherine Gallagher believes Sanford is trying to punish public schools: "He has his own agenda," says Gallagher. "And he's using this agenda to support vouchers, and not support public schools."

Sanford makes no apology of his desire to give families tax-dollars to use toward private school education. But he also argues that every stimulus dollar South Carolina spends is a dollar the state's children will have to pay back down the line. Public school officials say the kids will pay either way, because without Sanford's 700-million stimulus dollars, hundreds of teachers and staff will lose their jobs.