Board’s Promise vote leaves some unfunded

Green: School Board will revote Promise funding issue next month

WINNSBORO – All Fairfield County high school graduates are not currently able to receive free college tuition funds contributed by the Fairfield County School District as promised last summer under the newly minted Promise Program.

A school board vote last week left Promise Program tuition funding for private, charter and home schoolers to the county.

As initially conceived, the Promise Program called for the school district and county council each to pledge $75,000 annually, or $150,000 altogether, to the program administrated by Midlands Technical College.

In September, Green announced that the district moved forward with its version of the Promise Program, noting that 24 students made up the initial group of students receiving free tuition.

While the school district opted for lump sum payments to Midlands Tech, some council members, saying they desired greater accountability, preferred to be billed after qualifying students successfully met eligibility requirements.

Thus, the school district and county ended up signing separate Memorandums of Understanding agreements with Midlands Tech. There was no indication in either agreement, however, that any of the designated graduates would not be allowed to draw funds from both contributors.

Last week, during its regular monthly board meeting, the Fairfield County School District board of trustees voted 6-1, with trustee Paula Hartman against, to revise its Memorandum of Understanding. One of the revisions eliminated previously eligible graduates of private schools, charter schools and home schools from receiving tuition from the portion of the Promise Program funded by the Fairfield County School District.

The revised agreement states, under Student Eligibility: “Must be a Fairfield County resident with a valid high school diploma (or GED) from Fairfield County School District,” with no mention of funding for the private, charter and homeschooled students.

The change in the district’s funding contradicts initial promises from District Superintendent Dr. J. R. Green that graduates of private, public and home schools as well as Fairfield County School District graduates (and with GEDs) would be eligible for free tuition to attend Midlands Technical College.

Asked by The Voice why the district had decided to reserve its funds for Fairfield County School District students, Green replied via email, “The Promise Initiative still accommodates charter school, home school, and private school students in the county.  As you know there are now two separate agreements with MTC.  One with the county and one with the school district.  Funding for those students is covered in the county MOU.”

While those students would be eligible for funds contributed to the program by county council, the contract signed by the county and submitted in July to Midlands Tech has not yet been ratified by Midlands Tech. Without that ratification the county’s agreement is invalid, essentially leaving the private, charter and home schooled graduates currently with no Promise funding.

When contacted on Monday, County Council Chairman Neil Robinson, County Administrator Jason Taylor, Headmaster of Richard Winn Academy (Kristen Chaison) and Midlands STEM Institute Principal Cynthia Prince said they were unaware of the revision in the district’s agreement.

“I have not discussed that specific change with Dr. Green,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t aware that a change had occurred, but that’s the school district’s choice.”

In addition, the county is still waiting on feedback and final signoff from Midlands Tech, Taylor said.

Over the course of several email exchanges on Monday between The Voice and Green, he did not change his position on the revision.

By Tuesday, however, Green told The Voice via email that the school district would revisit the MOU at the board’s next meeting which is set for Nov. 19, according to the district’s website.

“I will present the Fairfield County School Board of Trustees with a revised MOU that includes home school, charter school and private school students from Fairfield County,” Green wrote.

Endowment Option

In addition to restricting who is eligible for free tuition, the district inserted verbiage into the MOU that alters the Fairfield Promise from a pure scholarship program to an endowment.

Green said doing so creates tax benefits for businesses that may wish to contribute. It also allows the district to use interest earned to further subsidize the program.

“We would use interest to help fund the program. Therefore you don’t need to count on a line item in the budget on a year-to-year basis,” he said.

Under the new MOU, the district can make annual contributions of $75,000 for five years up to $350,000.

“We have the option to continue contributing up to $75,000 a year. Or if the district decides somewhere between now and the conclusion of those five years, that they want to pay the balance of the $375,000, they have the option as well,” Green said. “That just gives the district flexibility to fund it differently.”

The deal commits Midlands Tech to raising at least $125,000 over five years to augment the endowment. Midlands Tech is designated as the fiscal agent for the endowment.

“An endowment provides for long-term sustainability as we strive to establish the Promise initiative to students who are in kindergarten now,” Green said. “We need to provide long term funding for those programs.”

Midlands Tech must submit a report at the end of each academic term stating the name and number of recipients and “other reportable information (in compliance of applicable laws) that is agreed to by the district and the college,” the MOU states.

Barbara Ball contributed to this story.