In August, he flat-out rejected money from the federal Education Jobs fund.
Last month, he snubbed opportunity to participate in a cost-free program that made schools eligible for financial rewards.
And this week, Mick Zais is refusing to tell anyone – even the South Carolina Dept. of Education he represents as Superintendent – about any other money available for use by the state’s cash-strapped schools.
According to The State, the SCDE board of directors issued instructions to Zais that he provide monthly updates on alternate sources of funding, including grants from both private organizations and the federal government, that could individually provide at least $10 million per application. He would also have to detail his decision on why he’d pursue or reject those grants. His first report was to be provided by Dec. 8.
Zais openly refused those instructions, however, declaring the board’s request to be a display of he called “partisan politics(.)”
“I will not abide by the unprecedented political power grab that this policy statement represents,” Zais said at the board’s last meeting.
SCDE’s board argues that its goals in the recent order are anything but political, however. Instead, according to 16 of its 17 members, the board was only interested in acquiring needed funding to accommodate budget shortages.
“If the money is there, significant amounts of money, it should be brought to the attention of the board and we should discuss whether to apply for it,” said SCDE board member Tim Moore. “It ought to be a cooperative effort.”
Beginning in the 2006-07 fiscal year, the Act 388 previously passed by the state legislature removed property taxes as a source for school funding in exchange for sales taxes.
The economic recession that hindered retail sales and collection of sales taxes began shortly after, making the risks of such variable funding come to light.
Total school funding dropped approximately $800 million since 2007-08, according to the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and SCDE’s operating budget is now the lowest it’s been in 17 years.
Approximately 1,400 school teachers have been laid off, while the salaries of those still employed by the state have been cut by approximately $20 million.
The only SCDE board member siding with Zais is Michael Brenan, the sole appointee to SCDE by Gov. Nikki Haley. Earlier this year, Haley openly supported Zais’ decision to refuse the Education Jobs funding.
Brenan said he was “opposed to anything” SCDE would request of Zais, who Brenan says is only obligated to voters.
Zais’ spokesman Jay Ragley iterates Brenan’s opinion. “The state board of education doesn’t operate the department of education,” Ragley told Associated Press.
SCDE chairperson Gerrita Postlewait disagrees with that statement, however, especially regarding this particular circumstance that includes seeking government grants. “It’s our federal tax dollars as well.”
Zais has continuously sought to remove any presence of the federal government, though.
In May of 2011, shortly after taking office in January, Zais refused to apply for a “Race to the Top” federal grant, which the state had continuously sought for the past two years. “Schools need less, not more, federal intrusion,” he said in explanation.
South Carolina was of guaranteed status to receive funding from this program, according to Molly Spearman, executive director of the state’s Association of School Administrators.
In August, Zais rejected $149 million in next-phase funding from the American Jobs Act. After his written refusal, the money was sent to other states even though it consisted of funds derived from South Carolina taxpayers. In written refusal to the U.S. Dept. of Education, he stated the Act was only an attempt to “inject Washington politics into South Carolina’s affairs.” Gov. Haley openly supported Zais’ decision.
Approximately 6,400 teaching jobs in the state were preserved by the American Jobs Act when first instituted in 2009, and are again at risk due to lack of state funding.
Last month, Zais announced refusal to participate in the “Green-Ribbon Schools” program, a new federal awards plan that would award schools making efforts to reduce environmental impacts upon their communities.
There is no spending required from a school seeking nomination, but he claimed the program would be a “financial cost that will be borne by state and local taxpayers.” In a letter of rejection to the U.S. Dept. of Education, Zais said the award program was only “placating environmental lobbyists.”