Saitta spoke Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Pickens County Taxpayers Association.
The school district is facing a number of problems, many of which are facing other government entities and businesses as well.
Those problems include low revenue/low GDP, a tax system that penalizes investment and growth, inflation, a voter base that is becoming less interested in education funding, charter schools drawing money away from traditional public education, illegal immigrants and a state and local tax base that is not growing like it should, Saitta said.
“All these problems the government has been pushing down the road … now we’re bumping into them every time we turn around,” Saitta said. “All these things are converging on the school district’s budget.”
He said Gov. Nikki Haley and state legislators are forcing school districts to use what they have.
“Education is not going to get as big as piece of the government pie,” he said. “She’s basically saying, ‘You’ve got plenty of money –manage it better.’”
He said previous boards and district administrations were spending money too freely.
He used as an example the district spending $7 million on Promethean boards and laptop computers.
“Laptops don’t last,” Saitta said. “That’s going to put more demands on the budget of the school district of Pickens County.”
Due to the district’s building program, the tax rate on Pickens County increase to 58 mils.
“You’re not getting the growth of your tax base, because your tax rate is too high,” he said.
Another problem is the facilities maintenance requirements once the warranties on the construction expire, Saitta said.
“You’re going to have a lot more demand on these buildings,” he said. “It’s going to strain the budget.
“We’ve had deficits four years in a row because of these things,” Saitta said.
“I knew that there was too much debt and that it would get us eventually. It got Rome eventually, it would get us eventually. It’s pretty much an economic fact.”
The current school board has taken a number of steps to bring spending in line – while avoiding cuts to the classroom, Saitta said.
“The new board is looking to reduce low priority spending,” he said. “They’re looking to reduce non-classroom expenditures, cut those things, free up funds to plug the deficit or protect the classroom.
The board rejected a proposal from district administration to plug a $4 million budget gap by cutting 22 teaching positions - and only one position in the district office.
“Last year, that would have been rubberstamped and passed,” Saitta said.
This year, Ben Trotter, Jimmy Gillespie, Judy Edwards and Saitta himself pushed back against that recommended budget, Saitta said.
“Managers put together this budget,” he said. “Managers are notorious for not wanting to cut their own staffs. We said, ‘Don’t do that. Cut no teachers. Go into the principal’s office, cut positions, go into the district office, cut positions.’”
“They cut 9 positions in the district office, 6 in the principals office,” Saitta said. “As a result, we cut no teachers in the budget this year.”
The board continues to pressure the district to cut spending, he said.
“We’re going to live within our means,” Saitta said. “This deficit is a problem that we need to deal with – and we’re not raising your tax rate, we’re not borrowing money and we’re not instituting new fees.”
Instead of bringing in new administrative hires from out of the area, the district is now promoting employees internally – which generates tremendous savings, Saitta said.
Former Superintendent Dr. Lee D’Andrea hired many personnel externally, he said.
“She would hire people from different counties and brought them here,” Saitta said. “When you have a curriculum director open up and you don’t promote the person below and you bring in someone from outside, that creates a ceiling on the inside.”
The external hires had high salaries, Saitta said
The curriculum director hired by D’Andrea earned $22,000 more than the previous curriculum director.
“Our HR person was making $88,000,” Saitta said, adding that the outside hire earned $98,000.
“This was just typical,” he said. “It was going on all throughout the administration.”
The district promoted a HR director at a salary of $88,000, not $98,000 – saving the district $10,000.
The district’s finance director now earns $82,000 – not $101,000.
By promoting internally, the district is able to reward employees by giving them pay increase and new opportunities – while still saving money
“We’re saying to people, ‘We can’t pay you a million dollars, but in this district, you’re going to have opportunity.”
Those internal promotions allowed the district to save $75,000, which the district used to add a teacher back to the budget – with savings left over.
“This is the kind of stuff that needs to be done,” Saitta said. “Everybody wins.”
Another way the district is generating additional funds is by allowing TIF district agreements between the school district and certain cities and municipalities to expire.
A Tax Increment Finance Agreement is an agreement that freezes a tax rate at a certain rate within the borders of the TIF district. Any increase in that tax rate is used by the city or municipality for projects within the TIF district, instead of being collected by the other party.
“The school district got roped into five different TIFs,” Saitta said.
For example, the city of Central has an TIF agreement that earns the city $150,000 a year in TIF funds that would normally go back to the school district, Saitta said.
“That TIF is ending next year,” Saitta said. “It’s a fourteen-year TIF.”
Central recently asked for the agreement to be renewed.
“We said, ‘Glad we could help you … we’re not in a generous mode right now – we want the $150,000. We’re not renewing the TIF.’”
The school district is also allowing to expire a ten-year TIF agreement with the city of Liberty that earns the city $40,000.
“We can’t do it any more,” Saitta said. “By ending these TIFs, that’s going to bring back $200,000 to the school district without raising anyone’s taxes.”
Saitta pledged to vote against renewing a TIF agreement with Clemson that is set to to expire in 2013.
“We need that revenue,” he said.
The board recently turned down a request from the city of Pickens to create a TIF district, Saitta said, adding that the district had invested $2 million in water and sewer lines leading up to the new Pickens High School.
“TIFs, in my opinion, it’s a political payoff,” Saitta said. “Somebody’s saying ‘Give me your revenue and I’ll like you in the next election. The board’s basically ending that political nonsense.”