The topic is Orangeburg County school district consolidation.
Some key points:
• The Orangeburg County school district system is “bulky, hard to manage and often wasteful.”
• “The new set-up … hopes to eliminate many of the inequities” in the county schools.
• “Working under the assumption that it was worth as much to teach in one section of the county, (it) was found that this was untrue. A great differential was reflected in the teaching load and the teachers’ pay.”
• “Great variances in the cost of school supplies was listed as another mounting expense and charged to the unwieldly” present system.
The words are not from 2017 and the debate over consolidating Orangeburg County’s three school districts into a single countywide district. They come from a Times and Democrat article of Nov. 15, 1949.
The issue then was consolidating the county’s 55 school districts (that’s correct, 55) into eight, the system that existed until consolidation of the eight into three in 1996.
A committee of nine citizens empowered by state legislators advocated the system of eight districts. The panel’s membership was “representative of the various geographical and other interests of the county.”
Its mission was “to make a study of the present division of the county into school districts, with consideration given to the adequacy of financial resources for proper school support, the quality of the instructional program, and the degree to which the present plan of organization affords greater education opportunity within the county.”
Opposition then existed to any merger, even though the committee found some of the 55 districts did not even have any schools within their boundaries, taxation was “far from balanced” and districts fought over pupils and transportation as part of maintaining eligibility for state aid. There were 11 high schools in the county at the time.
The words from nearly seven decades ago are stunningly similar to the 2017 debate over consolidation, which was approved this past week by the state Legislature. Though vetoed Friday Gov. Henry McMaster over a legal concern about school budgeting prior to election of a countywide school board, the governor is expressing support for the merger and urging lawmakers to make changes in the bill and return it to him.
Just as in 2017, lawmakers in 1949 saw the need for consolidation of governance and administration and set about a process of achieving consolidation.
In 2017, the legislative delegation has been criticized for not going the route of such a study committee. Critics say the lawmakers decided on consolidation even before there was public input.
The speed at which legislation attained approval indeed indicates consolidation was on a fast track and has the backing of the lawmakers, whose course of least resistance would have been to leave the present system alone. They chose to act and in the process get the county ahead of the inevitable push on the state level to consolidate governance and administration of schools around the state.
The decision on consolidation is made -- but there is work to do ahead of implementation in 2019. That is where the lawmakers of 2017 have decided to put their committee to work.
The final version of the consolidation bill calls for a transition panel to guide the county through consolidation. Its membership is to be the board chairs and a second board member from each of the current boards, and five members appointed by the legislative delegation. Non-voting members include the three superintendents and one parent from each of the three present school districts.
The panel is to lay the groundwork for the board of the new countywide district to make decisions that should be made only by those publicly elected to govern the schools – decisions on administration, teacher salaries, programs, facilities and even the future of individual schools (the legislation requires a public referendum for any school closure).
The new school district’s board is to have nine members, with seven elected from single-member districts following the Orangeburg County Council lines. The final two members are to be elected on a countywide basis.
Just as lawmakers in 1949 tackled the consolidation issue with a mandate to reduce the number from 55 “to not more school districts than there are high schools in the county,” lawmakers in 2017 have stepped up to consolidate three districts into one countywide system. They have made the right decision. The key now is effective implementation.