Delegation says workforce training money is priority

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Give-and-take on funding for numerous programs was the obvious theme Tuesday when Sumter School District's Board of Trustees met with the county's legislative delegation on educational issues related to the upcoming legislative session.

The board and delegation went back and forth on several topics including the school bus shortage throughout the state, a change to weighting on school report cards, the teacher shortage, "zero tolerance" student discipline and overall funding formulas.

State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, the delegation's chairman and a member of the House's Ways and Means Committee, informed board members to expect a tight budget year ahead, given the state's economy isn't performing quite as well as in years past.

But Smith and other delegation members told the school board and interim superintendent that school innovation-type funding to train the future workforce is a priority in the General Assembly now and certainly represents an avenue for the district to explore with the delegation.

Smith complimented the board and district in taking steps recently to move forward with a new technical high school/center with the purchase of the Bubba's Diner property on Broad Street near Central Carolina Technical College's state-of-the-art Advanced Manufacturing Technology Training Center. The delegation was able to help secure that funding for the school district because it's a collaborative partnership between the state Technical College System, Central Carolina and the district.

"The General Assembly operates based on issues at the forefront," Smith said. "Right now, the forefront that I see that everyone is in agreement with is collaborative partnerships and how we train and educate our future workforce in the state. So, there is a lot of money that will be available as we move forward on those types of programs."

Smith made those comments after Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm told the delegation that school districts like Sumter's need more flexibility in funding to allow for enhanced school-to-work opportunities and internships for students. She gave the example of a district she visited in another state that had a classroom of students and a teacher on site at a manufacturing plant. Students worked in the mainline operation at times and learned soft skills for the workplace and the importance of showing up for work on time, among other items, she said.

The company provided the room on site, but the school district was able to fund the teaching position for the 25 students, according to Hamm. The teacher supervised the students throughout the day.

"Having one teacher for just 25 kids is really expensive, but it was the ticket for those kids," Hamm said.

Smith said visionary ideas such as that are topics for the school board to pursue with the delegation and have the potential for special funding.

"I hope we don't lose sight of regular K-12 education because we have to do that, but at the same time, those types of programs are where we can possibly secure pockets of money for the district," Smith said.

Regarding the bus shortage, the delegation said it's in full agreement with the board that the General Assembly should override a legislative veto by Gov. Henry McMaster when it returns in January. In the spring, McMaster's veto disallowed additional funding to purchase more school buses in the state.

Delegation members also said they're in agreement with the school board on increases in state funding to pay for teacher salary increases to help with the teacher shortage across the state. However, Smith and state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said the issue could just come down to not enough money in the state budget to allow for a pay raise, given a slowdown in the state's economy.