The Orangeburg County School District's governing board would be allowed to proceed without public input on the closure of schools that are in need of significant repair and pose a health and safety hazard to students and staff, according to legislation proposed by local lawmakers.
The legislation would allow the district's board of trustees to close a school deemed to be "an imminent threat to the health or safety of students or staff" and if "the needed upgrades and repairs to maintain a school are economically unfeasible."
The legislation states if these two conditions exist for a school or building within the district that the board would be able to take actions to close it without going through public hearings or a public referendum.
One school building that could be targeted for closure under the proposed legislation would be Vance Providence Elementary School.
"We have buildings that are in excess of 90 years old, particularly that one in Vance," Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Bowman, said. "With the present language, it would not allow any child to be taken from one attendance zone to another or allow the board to make that decision after five years."
"We ran into a huge problem in the Vance area," he said. "The Vance Primary School is not in a condition to actually mount repairs. It is not even feasible to do so."
Stephens, who sponsored Senate Bill 515 along with Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto, said facility studies have shown the building is in bad condition.
But Orangeburg County School District Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster said while Vance Providence Elementary, the oldest school in the consolidated district, was built in the 1930s and is in need of significant repair, the district is not yet willing to say if Vance or any other school is in danger of immediately closing.
"A comprehensive district-wide facilities and demography study is underway," Foster said. "The study will detail estimated costs of necessary repairs to all school facilities, as well as attendance trends and future projections for student enrollment across the county."
"Should as part of the study or through another method it is determined or becomes apparent that a school building is a threat to student/staff safety, necessary repairs are economically unfeasible or that continued occupancy of a school building is not fiscally responsible due to underutilization, community stakeholders would certainly be made aware, invited to engage in discussions about options and become part of the decision-making process to assist in making the best possible decisions as a community about our school facilities," Foster said.
But under the amendments proposed by House Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, chair of the delegation addressing the bill, the trigger that says a school could be closed due to underutilization would be removed.
"I felt it was too open-ended," Ott said, about the trigger.
Ott said he wants to make sure the legislation is "true and close" to what was presented to the public during the process that resulted in consolidation of three districts into one in 2019.
He also removed language that a public referendum on school closure could not be held at the same time as a school bond referendum. New language would allow both to be held at the same time.
Ott said the amendments to the bill will be introduced in the House when it returns after the Easter break.
The bill does retain original consolidation language that no school can be closed (outside of these two conditions being met) without three public hearings and a public referendum.
The bill states that no school may be closed until three public hearings are held at least two weeks apart within the affected attendance areas, with information to include, among other things, "a delineation of the cost factors involved in keeping the school open and transporting the students to another school."
In addition to the public hearings requirement, the bill states 'if a school in an attendance area that existed before consolidation is to be closed and the students of that school moved to a school in another attendance area, the qualified electors within the attendance area where the school is to be closed also first must approve the closing by referendum."
Stephens said while there have been concerns from some that district consolidation would mean the closing of schools, there are no plans to close any other schools based upon the legislation.
He said other schools in the district can still be feasibly maintained. He cited ongoing roof work at William J. Clark Middle and Robert E. Howard Elementary.
Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, said he is satisfied that the bill as written will not jeopardize the public's ability to voice input about school closures.
"If you go back in the legislation passed by the House during the consolidation in terms of any changes that were addressed for a certain time period, this new language does not appear to change that," Govan said, noting all the stipulations he sees to close a school are reasonable
"It does not take away anything delineating that certain things have to go before the electors," he said. "Nor did I see it strike the language calling for the public hearing requirement."