The Times and Democrat today completes its countdown of the top 10 stories of the year in The T&D Region. The move to consolidate Orangeburg County’s three school districts into one was selected as the big story of 2017.

The competition was stiff, with story No. 2 expected to be a major one for years to come. The announcement by Wanli Tire of China that it will put a manufacturing plant in Orangeburg County is a game-changing kind of economic announcement. Over eight years, the plant is expected to be a $1 billion investment employing 1,200.

The future of the Regional Medical Center is always on the front burner of important issues here. The publicly owned hospital underwent a controversial transformation in 2017 with its trustees ousting longtime President Tom Dandridge. The story ranked No. 3, followed by the August solar eclipse that brought thousands of people to the area for a prime view.

No. 5 was Orangeburg County Council’s controversial year with passage of a business license fee and debate over the entertainment venue Yonder Field. Nos. 6 through 10 were: Fire heavily damaging historic Cattle Creek Campground, Orangeburg Mayor Michael Butler winning a second term, Denmark Technical College’s efforts to recover amid fiscal and governance problems, the ongoing dispute over a Confederate flag display near an Orangeburg business and the death of veteran Orangeburg County Councilman Clyde Livingston.

The top-10 series has appeared daily since Dec. 21. It is available for review at TheTandD.com

Consolidation has long been an issue under the surface here and in other counties, particularly those with small, rural districts. Orangeburg County’s Legislative Delegation sought to get out front of a pending state push to consolidate districts by introducing and passing legislation late in the 2017 session. The plan was approved but surprisingly vetoed by Gov. Henry McMaster.

The governor said he supports consolidation efforts but is convinced the legislation as written would not pass constitutional muster because of lawmakers’ control over the panel deciding on budgets during the transition period to a single district in 2019. Legislators did not have the opportunity to vote on an override of the governor but are expected to do so early in the 2018 session that begins the second week in January.

The plan, lawmakers say, is to override the veto and then amend the legislation to remove the budgetary power of the appointed transition panel. A proposal is to give that authority to the elected Orangeburg County Council during the year before an elected county board is in place.

While it appears the present districts’ leaders are resolved that consolidation is coming, there remains convincing to do among the people in the county. The fears range from closure of schools and more busing to loss of services for handicapped students. Lawmakers have tried to address those concerns through pledges that school closures are not the purpose – and by building in protections that give voters a say in the matter.

School district consolidation is a big issue. When there is substantive change in education, there is an impact beyond families directly involved with the schools. The future of education is the future of the county and its efforts to move beyond economically underdeveloped status.

Leaders such as veteran Orangeburg County Consolidated District 4 board Chairman Aaron Rudd say there are too many “unknowns” about the consolidation process. They will be seeking answers toward the objective of getting “the best for our people, students, staff and our taxpayers. We’re gonna do the best we can. We’re gonna make the best of it and work through it.”

Such a spirt of cooperation is needed in the transition to a countywide Orangeburg County school district over the next two years.

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