Local lawmakers expect a bill consolidating the two Bamberg County school districts into one will pass by the end of the month.
“It is going to pass this year. Everybody is on the same page,” said Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg.
Even though the legislative session is over, S.C. House and Senate members are conducting business through the month of June.
Then consolidation bill passed the Senate on May 6 and was introduced and read for the first time in the S.C. House on May 11.
It was referred to the Bamberg County legislative delegation, where it currently resides.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, is also confident the bill will pass. He’s the chief sponsor of the bill.
Hutto says he doesn’t expect any major hurdles to passing the bill.
If the bill becomes law, Bamberg County’s two school districts and boards would merge on July 1, 2022 to become the Bamberg County Consolidated School District.
Bamberg says he’s excited about the impact consolidation will have on education and the county.
He said Bamberg County is like a long chain and, “Every single link on that chain needs to be as strong and as solidified as possible.”
“That is the only way we flourish. We have been existing in Bamberg County for a long time but existing is not good enough. We have to flourish. Consolidation is one thing that will assist in that. It will effectively equalize and standardize education across the country,” he said.
Bamberg also noted consolidation will help cut down on administrative expenses and will make for a more efficient use of staffing and resources.
"The idea of having two school districts in a county our size inherently creates division among the people of the county. This is a big step in finally unifying people of different backgrounds in different parts of town. It is very symbolic,” he said.
The districts’ consolidation plan has been approved by the South Carolina Department of Education.
The bill stipulates a new, consolidated district would be governed by a seven-member board, which initially would be appointed by the Bamberg County Legislative Delegation.
A new, nonpartisan board would be elected during the November 2022 general election.
Members elected from Districts 2, 4, and 6 will initially serve for two years. The seats will move to four-year terms with the 2024 election.
Newly elected members from Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7 will serve four-year terms. This designed to make sure board terms are staggered.
Each board member would represent an election district drawn from the combined areas of Bamberg-Ehrhardt School District 1 and Denmark-Olar School District 2.
Bamberg said he plans to make a technical change to the Senate bill that would not change its substance.
He said his change would have only three of the appointed board members up for election after the first year of consolidation and not the entire board, as proposed in the Senate bill.
Bamberg said the change would ensure “institutional knowledge” remains on the board by keeping some board members who went through the consolidation process on the board to help new board members.
As part of the consolidation transition, the 2022 tax millage would be determined and calculated by the S.C. Department of Revenue based on the 2021 levy of the two present school districts and the value of a mill in each district.
The new school district would have total fiscal autonomy beginning in 2024.
Bamberg said legislators are still working on addressing the bond debt situation of the school districts.
Bamberg District 1 has about $24 million in debt and Bamberg District 2 has about $36 million in debt. He said each school district has had to fend for itself in addressing the debt and that has had a negative impact on the tax base.
Under consolidation, the bond debt would be consolidated with the aim of paying down the debt in the same amount of time with lower annual payments.
The state is providing incentives for school districts to consolidate.
Bamberg County has already been approved to receive $3.25 million from the State Department of Education to help pay for consolidation costs such as technology, salaries and transportation. The money could also go toward reduction in bond debt if the district so chooses, Bamberg said.
In addition to the $3.25 million already allocated, other money may also be available help pay down the district’s debt.
Bamberg said there are efforts to tap into state and other funding sources that would help to generate between $10 to $15 million over the next few years that could also go toward helping to reduce the debt and lessening the tax burden.
Bamberg expects that everyone's taxes will go down, which will in turn put more money back into pockets which will help stimulate the local economy.
The school districts have already taken steps toward consolidation.
Last month, the Bamberg-Ehrhardt School District 1 and Denmark-Olar School District 2 boards named Dottie Brown superintendent and Dr. Deonia Simmons deputy superintendent of both school districts.
Brown and Simmons will assume their new positions July 1.
Brown currently serves as the interim superintendent for District 1 and Simmons currently serves as the interim superintendent for District 2.
The boards also unanimously named Devon Furr as director of finance for the two school districts and Ricky Padgett as director of technology for the districts.
They will also assume the positions July 1.