Lawmakers approved a bill merging Orangeburg County’s three school districts into one on Tuesday. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk for his signature.
“I am very glad that this issue has been dealt with and I believe even more so that it will be in the best interest of all children in public schools in the county,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
Cobb-Hunter said this keeps the county “ahead of the curve.” Lawmakers have said the state could mandate that all counties consolidate their school districts.
“We did it before it was mandated, which is always good,” Cobb-Hunter said.
Under the bill, the county’s public schools will be run by the Orangeburg County School District effective July 1, 2019.
Attendance zones will remain the same through 2021-2022, unless a change is required by a federal court order.
Lawmakers made several changes to the bill on Tuesday. For instance, it was amended to delete language increasing teacher pay to meet the Southeastern average.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said that’s an issue to be left to the new school board.
Cobb-Hunter said increasing salaries to the Southeastern average would have required a tax increase.
“One of their top issues was the fear of increased taxes,” she said.
The final version of the bill also details the composition of the transition committee that will guide the county through consolidation.
The original bill called for a transition committee of 13 members with the purpose of coordinating the consolidation of the three present districts.
The committee will instead be comprised of the board chairs and a second board member from each of the current boards. There will also be five members appointed by the legislative delegation.
Non-voting members will include the three superintendents and one parent from each of the three present school districts.
The bill calls for this transition committee to be created within 60 days of the governor signing the bill.
Hutto said meetings should begin after summer vacation in late August.
The new school district’s board will be composed of nine members.
Seven of the members will be elected from single-member districts following the Orangeburg County Council lines. Hutto said the final two members will be elected on a countywide basis.
“Everybody in the county will get to vote for three school board members,” Hutto said.
Cobb-Hunter said this will address “the concern of rural voters about representation on the school board.”
“I feel very positive that that will result in appropriate representation,” she said.
Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, said lawmakers were able to reach a compromise on consolidation because they agreed to continue improving the plans.
“I think we all agree that we need to do some more work,” he said.
“We can always go back,” Cobb-Hunter said. “The door is always open to future changes in the event that they are warranted.”
Hutto said, “We want to make public education in Orangeburg County the best for all the students.”