HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – The chairman of the Horry County School Board doesn't want to hire any additional English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers.
That was a sentiment Chairman Joe Defeo expressed during a recent interview with WMBF News. It comes at a time when immigration is a major part of the national conversation.
"Why are we paying $800,000 extra a year when half of the kids we're teaching are not even here legally?" Defeo said. "There's nothing we can do about it. I'm sorry, but that's the way I feel about it."
According to information from Horry County Schools, the district has 4,139 English language learners enrolled for this current school year. That is an increase of 900 students from 2007.
District officials said these students speak 46 languages and come from more than 60 different countries.
The top five languages in the district are Spanish, which accounts for 90 percent of those students, followed by Arabic, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Portuguese. The budget for the ESOL program is $5.2 million.
More than $700,000 came from the state government last school year. According to Defeo, the district did not get those funds this year.
Instead, more than $300,000 came from the federal government. That left Horry County picking up the remaining $4.9 million.
WMBF News learned through an investigation there is no way to verify the claim that half of the children enrolled in the ESOL program are in the country illegally. It is against federal and state law for school administrators to even ask that question.
In April 2015, State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman released a memo to superintendents and principals that read, in part:
"The organizing principle of public education is that all children have the opportunity to participate and to achieve. While demographic changes present challenges, the response of the educational community within our state has been positive and supportive of opportunities for all children."
That extra $800,000 Defeo referred to was in the 2015-2016 school budget. For that year, $886,416 was added to hire 11 teachers and one coach.
The district's human resource committee actually asked for more teachers than that at the May 2015 board meeting.
"We've asked that it be brought up to 15 because we are at such a shortage and I believe Mr. Gardner would have to correct me, where is that money coming from, some teacher fund or something?" school board member Janice Morreale said at that meeting.
John Gardner, the district's chief financial officer, said at the time Horry County Schools would be able to fund those additional educators without increasing the overall budget.
Later in that May 2015 meeting, the board passed the teacher increase unanimously. Defeo did not vote on the matter, he says he only votes in the event of a tie.
The school district now has 60.5 employee salaries dedicated to the ESOL program. The state recommends a 60-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.
Horry County is at 68-to-1. It would need 8.5 more employees to meet the recommendation.
Defeo said the board is requesting eight more teachers for the next school year.
In order to get more clarity on his position, WMBF News followed up with Defeo regarding his comment that half of the ESOL students are illegal.
He stated his comment was a guess.
"Many of them are here illegally, and there's no way to track it," he said. "Americans should speak good enough English to not need a translator. I don't believe somebody here illegally should get benefits from the United States."
When asked if cutting funding to the program would put the county out of line with state or federal regulations, Defeo said the federal government should "put up or shut up. They're mandating things they're not willing to pay for."
WMBF News reached out to the South Carolina Department of Education for a reaction to Defeo's comments. The following statement was received:
"The U.S. Supreme Court has held for a number of years that school districts must provide special services to English Language Learners so that they have equal educational opportunities. The Court has also held that adopting policies or taking actions that would deny students access to education based on their immigration status is prohibited. As the state education agency tasked with overseeing the federally mandated ESOL program, we will continue to work with Horry county to ensure that their students, who speak 19 non English languages, have the support and resources that are required under federal statute."