As South Carolina lawmakers consider changing the way education is funded, they’re looking for ways to cut administration costs and shift the savings back into classrooms.
That could mean changes in areas like Bamberg County.
“What we’ve got to do is change with the times and realize that in order to focus on the education of the children, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that we aren’t having growth in the numbers of school students in rural areas, while at the same time the number of students statewide is growing,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
“So we’re trying to take a holistic look at education in the state and make a real recognition of the fact that it’s different in rural South Carolina than it is in the urban areas of South Carolina,” he said.
S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas has introduced a statewide education reform bill. It includes a stipulation that districts with fewer than 1,000 students have to consolidate.
The bill follows an addition to last year’s state budget giving Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman the ability to require that small school districts consolidate administrative and professional services.
Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, said the state’s education funding formula really hasn’t worked for the smaller districts.
“Those areas are oftentimes struggling with population decreases, teacher shortages and other things,” he said. “I don't want to say impossible, but it makes it very difficult for you to exist on the same playing field as other school districts in this state that don't have those issues.”
He said there’s talk in Columbia about whether a final bill should require the consolidation of smaller districts.
“The fact of the matter is this: The smaller you are, the smarter you have to be. You have to be willing to look past and let go of petty historical differences, racial differences and oftentimes the legacy or heritage difference,” Bamberg said.
“At the end of the day, our educational system isn't about me. It isn't about who runs the district. It's about the children who have one chance to get the best education they can before they're prepared to go off into the real world,” Bamberg said.
The lawmaker said there is still time for Bamberg County to consolidate administrative services and remain in separate schools.
“We still have time to do that, but at some point in the near future, the state is going to make us do it. ... In essence, I think the choice that is presented is: Do you figure out a way to do it that works better for you, or do you wait to do it the state's way?" Bamberg said.
He doesn’t think education reform will one day lead to school closures, “unless we were to see a significant population change in terms of young people moving back.”
"That's one reason I filed that Rural Revitalization Act to try to entice young people to come back. Unless we're able to do that, I think eventually, whether it be 15, 20 or 10 years from now, Bamberg County and even Barnwell County may very well have a one-district, one-school type set up,” he said.
Bamberg thinks the most difficult part of consolidation is changing school districts’ power structures, including the designation of one superintendent and a new school board.
“And, of course, all of those things will be looked at and lines will be drawn in a way that ensures every area of the county has equal representation. But it’s always difficult when you’re dealing with politics and the politics of power. But we’ll get through all this ... In my discussions with people throughout Bamberg County, my consensus is that there are a lot of people who are for this idea of consolidating administratively,” but won’t speak out publicly about it, Bamberg said.
“They don’t want to rock the boat. Sometimes if your engine is burnt out and you want to make it to shore, you ain’t got no choice but to get to rocking,” he said.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the House speaker’s effort is designed to get more money into the state’s classrooms, and less in administration, and facilitate construction.
Hutto said, “In many counties, they haven’t had a new school built in decades.
“It would be unrealistic to think that in a small county that we’re going to build three new schools with state money. Obviously the local districts could raise money. I say that, but then they really can’t because there’s just not enough tax base there to do it.
“So I think the state recognizes that we need new school facilities in many rural areas, and before the state’s going to invest that kind of money in it, they want to make sure that money is going to be spent so that the majority of it ends up in the classroom and not toward administration.”
He expects a final bill to provide incentives for consolidating administrative duties in areas like Bamberg County.
“They may say, ‘If you do this, you’ll be eligible for this many more dollars,’” Hutto said.
Hutto said teacher recruitment will also be improved under administrative consolidation to address a "real teacher shortage."
“If you just take our little area right here with Bamberg, Barnwell, Hampton and Allendale, we’ve got like maybe seven total school districts in four counties. You got four different sets of people going out trying to recruit when really we just need to recruit teachers to our region,” he said.
Hutto said the state budget already gives Spearman the authority to consolidate administrative and professional services among districts with fewer than 1,500 students.
“Human resources, IT, administration ... there’s so many things that can be consolidated without necessarily changing the structure of a school,” Hutto said.
Bamberg said he will also look into how administrative consolidation can help save taxpayers money, particularly since both school districts in Bamberg County have bond debt remaining from the construction of Richard Carroll Elementary School and what will be a new K-8 school attached to a renovated Denmark-Olar High School.
“I think that because the school funding formula aspect is going to be changing, we’re still looking at how that affects people’s taxes. If the school funding formula changes and a debt was incurred before the change was put in place, how does that affect things going forward?” he said.
Bamberg said he’d like to see the state provide financial incentives for consolidation, such as paying off some debt. That would in turn lower taxes.
“If there was one thing that would make me fight against the consolidation, it would be if the state doesn’t want to give any consideration to that because we live in an area where we don’t need to be raising taxes. We need to be lowering them, and that’s going to be a fight itself,” he said.
In the meantime, Bamberg said he is excited about the bipartisan push to reform the state’s public education system.
“It’s not every day that there’s a firm commitment from a large majority in the General Assembly to actually tackle a problem. And I do have to commend the speaker for putting in the time and effort needed to legitimately look at and analyze these things. It’s a lot of work. You’re talking about changing a system of education in this state which has been in place for half a century,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to look at everything.”