SC superintendent troubled over mixed messages from Columbia, state mandate could cost district $1 million

Lancaster County Schools superintendent says mixed messages from Columbia could cost them.
Lancaster County Schools superintendent says mixed messages from Columbia could cost them.(Source: (Morgan Newell, WBTV))
Updated: Jul. 9, 2020 at 7:41 PM EDT
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LANCASTER, S.C. (WBTV) - A South Carolina superintendent is speaking out about the mixed messages coming from state agencies and the state legislature.

Lancaster County Schools Superintendent Jonathan Phipps says a state mandate goes against the recommendations from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Accelerate Ed task force helping schools develop a reopening plan, but going against it could cost him.

Phipps says they are waiting on a waiver from the Department of Education that will allow his district to choose either a face to face and virtual teaching or all virtual model. However, he says he might not be able to use it because of a South Carolina mandate.

”We have to play the political game to do what’s right for kids and it shouldn’t be that way,” Phipps says.

He says mixed messages from Columbia have created bumps in the road to reopening.

”It would really be nice if we worked together more,” says Phipps.

DHEC and the State Superintendent Molly Spearman’s Accelerate Task Force recommended districts start school later and use virtual options if cases are too high in the county, but the state legislature had a different idea - mandating face-to-face and an earlier start date.

Phipps says mandating face-to-face instruction makes reopening difficult.

”Our motto in the 20 plus years I’ve been here in putting our children first and a part of that, a major part of that, is that safety piece,” he says. “If we drop the ball and we’re not doing the best we can to keep our kids safe, then we’re in the wrong business.”

Phipps could face financial consequences though, based on wording in the South Carolina COVID-19 relief funding bill. It says “The Department of Education is authorized to reimburse public school districts up to $210,700,000 for the cost of providing un-budgeted instructional support... The additional support is to focus on face-to-face instruction...”

Phipps says if he does not choose face-to-face, he could lose out on much needed funding. He says it has happened before. During summer learning, Phipps said the legislature said it would fund the program. However, a week before the session started, Phipps says it was changed and they had to have face-to-face to get the funding.

”What we’re seeing more and more is it’s become a political football in when schools open and how we’re going to do it instead of taking care of our kids,” explains Phipps.

He says the cost for the extra five days could be over $1,000,000 and that money could come out of teacher’s salaries.

”We would rather not reduce salaries for something that was mandated that they didn’t pay for,” he says.

Phipps says his focus is still on safety. It is the end goal that trumps everything.

”Balancing that I tell you it’s an easy balance because we’re going to do what we need to to take care of our kids,” he says.

WBTV reached out to all 25 committee members from the South Carolina House Ways and Means Committee, but they did not get back to us.

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