Forum shows differences between S.C. House candidates on education

Published 5:13 pm Friday, May 21, 2010

A forum for S.C. House candidates drew a large, vocal crowd to Landrum High School this week, and revealed clear differences between the candidates on education issues.
Voters nearly filled the schools 650-seat auditorium to listen to candidates for S.C. House District 38, which includes the Landrum and Campobello areas, and District 37.
The forum, sponsored by the 2009-2010 Teachers of the Year for Spartanburg County Schools District One, included District 37 candidates Ralph Davenport, Delores Frazer and Steve Parker.
It also included District 38 Republican primary candidates Doug Brannon, Joey Millwood and John Moore and District 38 Constitution Party candidate Jerry Blanton. District 38 Democratic candidate John Lewis was unable to attend because he was on his honeymoon.
The candidate forum lasted more than two and a half hours and covered a range of topics. It was the candidates views on public education that elicited the strongest reactions from the crowd.
Candidates Davenport and Millwood heard rumblings from the crowd each time they complained about excessive spending in public schools and voiced support for school choice.
Davenport, a former state legislator, said he favors consolidation of Spartanburg Countys seven school districts to reduce administrative costs. He said the county does not need seven superintendents and seven of every other administrative position.
During a question-and-answer period, one District One teacher countered that having seven districts allows administrators to be “better acquainted with the people they serve,” a comment that drew boisterous applause.
Millwood, the current S.C. House District 38 Rep., repeatedly blasted what he views as excessive pay for public school administrators. Several times he noted that some districts have paid for two superintendents at once by having a superintendent-elect work with an outgoing superintendent during a transition period.
Current District One Supt. Ron Garner was superintendent-elect for a period before former superintendent Jimmy Littlefield retired last year.
“We had nine superintendents at one time here in Spartanburg County,” said Millwood. “Its ridiculous that were running around here paying two superintendents to do the same job.”
The crowd responded with moans of disapproval and shouts of “come on” each time Millwood returned to the topic.
Later Millwood acknowledged that he is “not going to be a friend to administrators,” but that doesnt mean he is opposed to public education. He said he supports efforts to put more money in the classroom and flip the current “upside-down pyramid” that gives administrators much more pay than teachers.
“Theres no administrator on planet earth worth $60,000 to $100,000 more than a teacher,” he said. “Whatever we can do to get more money into that classroom, Im good with. If that means that maybe the administrators take pay cuts … its got to get to the classroom.”
S.C. House candidate Moore said it doesnt help to continue harping on the superintendent-elect issue.
“I dont believe cutting the number of superintendents or superintendent salaries solves our education funding problems,” he said.
Candidate Parker, the current House District 37 Rep., prompted loud applause when he said he thinks superintendents “earn every penny.”
He added he thinks some people are misleading the public on education spending issues. He noted that Spartanburg Countys per pupil spending is much lower than in some other areas of the state, yet the district’s schools outperform most other districts.
Parker told the crowd not to be misled when South Carolina students are compared on standardized tests that are only taken by the elite students in some other states. He said teachers here “do a great job, “and we are as successful as anybody in this nation.”
However, Millwood did not relent on the spending issue.
“Weve got funding issues in the public schools,” said Millwood. “On average were spending $12,000 per child (with) 25 kids in a classroom thats $300,000 in a classroom. Now thats average statewide and a teacher is making $30,000 to $35,000 starting out, $50,000 to $60,000 if they’ve got some experience.
“In my mind thats a problem because that leaves about $250,000, $270,000 out there that we got no clue whats going on.”
Former District One Supt. Jimmy Littlefield later asked Millwood to acknowledge that all the districts spending figures are audited and fully transparent, as required by state law. He emphasized the figures are available for anyone to see, and the district is not hiding anything.
Littlefield suggested state legislators should look at the “sweet deals” that some are getting through exemptions that limit the amount of sales tax revenue available to schools.
Although the states education funding is currently at 1995 levels, Millwood and Parker both said the state is facing even rougher times ahead when federal stimulus money leaves the budget in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
Millwood and Parker also stood separate from the rest of the candidate field on the issue of school choice. They both made it clear they support vouchers, or the diversion of public funds to give public school students the alternative of attending private schools.
Millwood said District One has good schools, but students in other districts may want to take advantage of tax credits to attend better-performing private schools. Millwood did not apologize for accepting donations from outside, special interests that support school choice.
“Im a school choice advocate,” he said, “and if someone thinks thats a good idea and they want to give me money, fine.”
The other S.C. House District 38 candidates did not agree.
Blanton, a member of the Constitution Party, said he does not support school vouchers. He added the state needs to get more money to elementary schools.
“Students have different needs so we need to get to those needs, and I dont believe in cutting funds to the schools,” said Blanton, who added teachers had a tremendous influence in his life.
Brannon, the former mayor of Landrum, said the most important number in education is the teacher-student ratio, and “I will vote to protect the proper and appropriate ratio.”
He emphasized the state constitution requires the state to provide free public education and law enforcement. Therefore, the state should examine spending in programs not required by the constitution and make sure it is adequately funding those services that are required.
“If Im elected … I will not support vouchers, I will not support tax credits, and I will not support free choice for public education,” said Brannon. “Free choice will cripple public school education, unless the public schools have the right to choose as well … because if we say … you can pick the school you want to go to, District One is going to be the school they want to go to.”
Moore said the state should consider what works best in each area of the state, but he is opposed to taking money from the government and giving it to private schools.
“I believe you need to have as much funding going directly into the classroom as you possibly can,” he said.
Moore also made it clear he has not accepted any out-of-state, special-interest money.
“I have not and will not take any out-of-state, special-interest money for my campaign,” said Moore, drawing loud applause. “nor is my campaign funded almost exclusively by one profession.”
Moore, Blanton and Brannon stressed the importance of education for creating more economic opportunities, and said, for that reason, education funding should remain a top priority even during the slow economy.
Look for more coverage on the forum and the S.C. House District 38 Republican candidates in upcoming editions of the Bulletin.
Voters will choose in the June 8 Republican primary election one of the three District 38 Republican candidates, Brannon, Millwood and Moore. The winner will go on to face Democrat Lewis and Constitution Party member Blanton in the November general election.

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