Teachers urge lawmakers to use state’s $775 million surplus to support public education

VIDEO: Teachers urge lawmakers to use state’s $775 million surplus to support public education

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Despite the economic impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, South Carolina finished the last fiscal year with a surplus of $775 million.

Now, teachers are hoping legislators unfreeze educators’ salaries and compensate them for the extensive work they’ve put in to reshape the landscape of learning in the Palmetto State.

However, Gov. Henry McMaster has already asked the General Assembly to not approve a new budget when lawmakers reconvene in Columbia next month.

“I believe the responsible thing for the General Assembly to do next month is to keep the state budget operating under a continuing resolution and to place any surplus revenue that happens to come in, that is new money, and carry it forward to the next fiscal year 2021,” McMaster told his cabinet last week.

“State government has been operating since June under a continuing resolution which kept state government operating under the previous year’s budget,” the governor said.”The board of economic advisors has issued a very cautious revenue projection for the state, but it is still unclear whether there will be any new money or how much there will be, if there is any. So, the only thing that is certain about this is the uncertainty.”

Just months prior to the start of the pandemic in South Carolina, state leaders had been excited about the last fiscal year’s economic boom and the potential uses of a $1.8 billion surplus.

However, that money was quickly drained as COVID cases started to spread, schools were closed, and businesses were shuttered. One of the projects that was set for funding was a proposed teacher pay raise that would have catapulted South Carolina teachers into a bracket with some of the highest average teacher salaries in the country.

However, that plan was put on hold. Teacher salaries and their annual raises were frozen.

The surplus announcement has forced a call to action from SC for Ed, a group of teachers advocating for improvements to the state’s education system.

In a Facebook post the group wrote, “School staffs, this news is why we need to be united in voicing our concerns. There is money to pay us more. There is money to protect us better. There is money, but as long as we accept less, that’s what we will be offered.”

The state finished fiscal year 2020 with a surplus of $672 million plus a balance of $103 million in its Contingency Reserve, according to the Office of the Comptroller General.

The state’s Comptroller General advocated the money be used for an immediate fix for the state retirement system’s $23 billion funding shortfall.

“While the General Assembly previously created a plan to eventually pay off this shortfall, the plan has been suspended this year presumably to save budget dollars,” a press release stated.”This decision resulted in further harm to the financial health of the state Retirement System, which already was almost the worst funded state-run retirement plan in the nation. Any state official in a position to do something about the deteriorating financial health of the state Retirement System should immediately accept that responsibility. There’s too much at stake for state leaders to fail to correct this serious problem.”

However, teachers want to make sure they aren’t forgotten if lawmakers revisit the state’s budget in September.

“We are excited to know the argument of ‘we don’t have any money’ is no longer on the table,” SC for Ed Founder Lisa Ellis said. “We want to remind legislators, November is election season. So, we’ve, as always, been paying attention to what elected officials do to help teachers in public education, and we’re watching as close as ever now. Whether or not they give teacher salary increases is really going to help or hurt them at the election booths come November.”

SC for Ed is calling on the state’s 50,000 teachers to contact their state representatives to urge them to spend the surplus wisely.

“Teachers, at this point starting the 2020-2021 school year, are working harder than they ever have,” Ellis said. ”We have teachers that are having to plan two lessons for one unit, so in essence doing double the amount of work. Teachers are losing their own time because they are having to spend time following cleaning protocols.”

SC for Ed officials said this money is more crucial than ever for keeping teachers in their classrooms .

”The state is physically asking teachers to put their lives in jeopardy, and if they’re going to ask that, then they need to compensate us for that. So, we really hope elected officials will be thoughtful and recognize the commitment that teachers have to doing what is right for their students in South Carolina,” Ellis said. “There’s no longer an excuse to not compensate teachers and continue to push the profession of teaching up into a competitive stance, so we can work to address this teacher shortage crisis that continues to loom and has potentially gotten worse with this pandemic.”

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