The S.C. Department of Education says reports that Bamberg County school districts are being forced to consolidate are inaccurate, but one superintendent said that is not the end of the story.
A S.C. Department of Education spokesman responded Wednesday to a T&D report on a Bamberg County School District 1 (Bamberg-Ehrhardt) board meeting where consolidation was discussed.
“There is mention of withholding of state and federal funds by the State Superintendent. Not only is this inaccurate, it would be illegal. There is also mention that the districts are being forced to consolidate. That is also inaccurate. There is no law, rule, or regulation requiring districts to consolidate. It is all voluntary. The General Assembly provided $50 million in funds this year to assist small rural districts if they WANTED to consolidate,” department Communications Officer Ryan Brown stated via email.
Wednesday’s edition of The T&D also contained coverage of the Bamberg County School District 2 (Denmark-Olar) board discussion about consolidation. The school board stories quoted superintendents as telling trustees that consolidation of district services – not schools – is inevitable.
District 2 Superintendent Dr. Thelma Sojourner told trustees Tuesday about the consolidation incentives approved as part of a state budget proviso and said, “… We are going to be required to consolidate at some point.”
She stated later, “At this point, consolidation is going to happen to the districts.”
During the District 1 board meeting, Superintendent Phyllis Schwarting stated, “We have got this mandate that states, ‘Yes, you will consolidate.’”
Schwarting also referenced the prospect of funds being withheld from districts deciding not to consolidate – an action that Brown said cannot legally happen.
'Given that authority'
Regarding the statements about mandatory consolidation, Brown said the inaccuracies seem to stem from a July 9 meeting in Columbia about consolidation that involved legislators and district officials.
On Thursday, Brown said, "This whole thing stems from a July 9 meeting, where Bamberg 1 officials (and those from) Bamberg 2, Hampton, Clarendon, Barnwell counties, all came to a meeting at our agency to talk about consolidation and the $50 million that the General Assembly has appropriated to assist them with consolidation.
"It was a very positive meeting, but evidently the Bamberg 1 superintendent left that meeting and then held a school board meeting sometime later and said that they were being forced to consolidate and if they did not consolidate, then we -- the state department and state superintendent (of education)-- were going to withhold all of their state and federal funds."
Brown added, "A, that statement was never said, B, that would be illegal. We don't have any ability to withhold state or federal funds unless we're directed by Congress, U.S. Department of Ed or General Assembly to do so. ... That was never said. There isn't any provision in state law for that to happen."
On Thursday, Schwarting said, "It was said directly to me. She (Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman) said that she had been given the authority by the legislature to withhold federal and state funds. She didn't say that she would do it, but she said she had been given that authority.
"I think I might have asked a question, 'What happens if you don't consolidate?' and that was the response. Several of the people who were with me heard that same response. And it could be semantics ... but she said that she had the authority to do it. So if that's the big issue, then I'm not arguing over could or would, but the message was very clear," Schwarting said.
The BSD1 superintendent added, "I don't have any reason to lie about it, I really don't. I'll go home tomorrow if that suits everybody. I don't know why she's (Spearman) taken such offense to it other than maybe she said something she shouldn't have said."
The S.C. Department of Education on Wednesday afternoon tweeted, “The statements made by Bamberg One officials are FALSE. No district is being required to consolidate and no state or federal funding can be withheld from a district who chooses not to. Those districts that submit a consolidation plan are eligible to receive part of $50 million that the General Assembly has set aside to assist with consolidation efforts.”
Spearman retweeted the quote with the comment: “This is the type of fearmongering one might expect from adults who are more interested in preserving their own positions than bettering outcomes and opportunities for our students.”
On Thursday, Schwarting said, "Oh, I had not read that. I guess one of us is crazy. I don't happen to think it was me at this point and time. I stand by what I said. ... I guess they're copying the President and tweeting everything now. But I know what I heard, and I'm retiring after next year. So I'm not trying to keep my job. I've been working for 48 years. I've had it."
Schwarting said while consolidation may not be mandatory, "It'll be done for us" eventually.
"Well, it's not mandatory because the law doesn't say that it is. The proviso is a one-year proviso. It encourages consolidation ... with the offer of some funding to go along with that. It is not something that we have to do; however, if we don't do it, it'll be done for us.
"If we don't consolidate on our own, the state department will tell us how to consolidate. Right now we're having an opportunity to make the plan in the way that we think it's going to be best for the two districts, but consolidation will come. I guess it's a question of when, but it's not a question of if," the BSD1 superintendent said.
'Don't have to submit a plan'
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The state budget proviso states that any school district with less than 1,500 students may be directed by Spearman to consolidate administrative and professional services with one or more school districts. Shared administrative and professional services include, but are not limited to: finance, human resources, procurement and transportation.
Also under the proviso, the state superintendent of education notifies each district in writing that it has met one or more of the criteria. Each district then has 30 days from receipt of the notification to deliver a plan to the superintendent for her approval.
BSD1 and BSD2, both with under 1,500 students, have been working on a plan through the Salkehatchie Education Consortium. The plan will have to be submitted by Aug. 1.
On Thursday, BSD2’s Sojourner said, "We were informed through the legislators and the information that came through the state department that it was going to happen to those schools who have an enrollment of less than 1,500 students.
"We are one of the districts that have an enrollment of less than 1,500 students. So what I did on the Denmark side is inform our board, but our board was informed anyway because they are people that read the papers as well and so do the people in this community. They were aware of what has been passed down through legislation."
She added, "So we just started getting proactive and started moving in that direction. ... There are several things we share already."
Schwarting said, "We will definitely meet the deadline. We have been working diligently, both districts together very amicably. The plan will be Columbia no later than Aug. 1. If it's going to happen, I have no reason not to go along with it and do the best we can for both districts.
"Research doesn't show consolidation to save money. This consolidation will cost us money, which is going to have to come from the state because we don't have any money, neither district does. So it just opens a lot of cans of worms. And those are just things that we're going to have to (work through)."
She added, "Every question that was asked at the meeting on July 9 was answered with, 'We don't know,' 'We don't know yet,' 'We'll figure that out as we go.' There was very little, 'This will be this.'"
Schwarting noted that she felt from the meeting that consolidation would be imminent either way.
"I don't want to say words that maybe weren't said, but I don't think there was any doubt in anybody's mind that now is the time to do it because right now the plan that you've developed can be the way you implement consolidation.
"If you wait and don't take advantage of this giant pot of money that they've offered to put on the table, then you won't have any funding to help you accomplish consolidation, which will occur. They said, 'We are not forcing you to consolidate, but consolidation is coming,'" Schwarting said.
She added, "When we came, we were wondering if we had an option. But after the meeting, we all felt that we did not have an option. It's just a matter of go ahead and get busy, do it, take advantage of the little tiny pot of money and go forward, which was always our intent.
"But she (Spearman) very clearly said that the legislature had given her the authority (to withhold state and federal funds). Now, she didn't say, 'If they don't do it, I'm going to withhold funds,' but she said very clearly that the Legislature had granted her the authority to withhold (them)."
Brown said school districts are not required to submit a plan by Aug. 1.
"They don't have to submit a plan at all. If they don't want to consolidate, they don't have to submit anything. It means they're eligible, it doesn't mean that they have to," he said. Districts which don't consolidate will "just keep chugging along just like they have been."
He added, "But if they were to come together and decide to consolidate, then they could submit this application, be eligible to receive a piece of $50 million to help them with consolidation efforts and also to build things like a new high school or a new career center or elementary school, or upgrade existing facilities. So if they did choose to do it, they'd be eligible to receive extra money. They're not going to get any less money if they don't choose to do it."
Brown continued, "This is just the consolidation of administration. So this does not require any schools to be shut down, any teachers to be let go or anything of that nature. It's essentially taking the Bamberg 1 district office and the Bamberg 2 district office and putting them together with one school board."
'What's best for our children'
The BSD1 and BSD2 boards held a special called meeting on July 8 where they met in executive session to discuss "proposals regarding consolidation" of the two districts. Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, attended.
Sojourner and Schwarting said they were not told that consolidation was mandatory during that meeting.
Sojourner said, "I don't know they said it was mandatory. They just continued to talk about the incentives that we could get ... and that if we comply with the proviso by Aug. 1, that we would be eligible to get some funds."
She added, "We're trying to do what's best for our children. We're also in the process of trying to get into our new school. We have a new building we're trying to get into. So in the midst of all of that, first and foremost is the children. ... Once we get through the little wrinkles and the kinks and get it worked out, it's all about children. We will be doing what is best for them."
BSD2 is constructing a new K-8 school that will be attached to a renovated Denmark-Olar High School.
Of the July 8 meeting, Schwarting said she didn't think Hutto and Bamberg "put themselves on the line and said that consolidation would occur, but they're both very much in favor of it and they were encouraging us to proceed.
"They offered suggestions as to how we might get the money to move forward. I don't know that they said, 'You must consolidate,' and the law does not say you must consolidate, but, I don't know, maybe there's some reading between the lines. But there was no reading between the lines when she (Spearman) told me that the legislature had given her the authority to withhold federal and state funds," she said.