When I arrived at the Beaufort County School District a year ago, my first impression was that a community with so much wealth could do better for its students. I leave with that impression confirmed and intensified. We can - we must - do better.
My concern is not the potential of our students, the talents of our teachers, or the capabilities of our administrators. I'm very proud of all they've achieved and the improvements we've made together despite the odds against success. One obvious example is seven straight years of improved high school graduation rates.
Rather, the heart of the problem is a statewide school funding system that's placed South Carolina 41st in the nation (according to U.S. News and World Report) in the quality of its Pre-K through Grade 12 education system.
The roots of this funding system date back to 1999, when the South Carolina Supreme Court held that the state's constitution requires only that each student have a "minimally adequate education." With that phrase, the high court set a new low in educational expectations.
Perhaps spurred on by this underachiever mindset, the state in 2006 switched from funding schools with property taxes to funding them from an increase in the sales tax. The modest sales-tax boost has never generated enough revenue to offset funds lost from property taxes.
This misguided move impacts poor districts the hardest, but Beaufort County is not immune. Despite many outward signs of wealth here, 56 percent of our students live in poverty. English is the second language for about 17 percent of students. These children need assistance and services that our sales tax system fails to fully fund.
Making matters worse, teacher and administrator turnover is high as educators quit in frustration over pay that's too low and work challenges that are too big.
At the same time, we desperately need repairs to aging buildings and more school rooms for an expanding population. Yet Beaufort County residents have voted twice against raising capital funds for schools in the last three years. In fact, we haven't passed a bond vote in 11 years, even as other growing school districts have passed referendums every four or five years to keep pace with change.
How do we overcome these challenges?
We begin with what we can control. In November, county voters will consider a $344 million bond referendum that would allow us to improve building security; repair leaking roofs, broken air conditioning and aging athletic facilities; and address overcrowding at May River High and River Ridge Academy.
The cost to resident homeowners? Nine dollars a month, less than the price of a movie ticket.
At the state level, the General Assembly should raise starting teacher salaries that currently begin at just $35,000 a year. That's not enough to afford apartment rent in Beaufort County, which has the state's highest cost of living. Let's raise beginning teacher salaries to $45,000 so they need spend no more than 30 percent of after-tax income for rent, as budget experts recommend. Let them live with the dignity they have earned as professionals.
We have come a long way in the past year toward restoring public trust and confidence in our school board and school system. I know my successor, Dr. Frank Rodriguez, will build and expand on this progress. I like him, trust him and believe in him. You will, too.
I leave knowing we're moving in the right direction with a talented new leader who will keep us on track, and that our students will - much sooner than later - have the high-quality education they deserve.
Herb Berg has served as Beaufort County's interim superintendent for the past year.