The focus on education reform in South Carolina has put the issue of school district consolidation on the front burner where it should be.
Republicans and Democrats generally agree that consolidating small districts into one countywide unit is a way to save dollars on administration and funnel them into the classroom. Such consolidations likely will be part of legislative efforts on education during the 2019 session.
Orangeburg County, which this year completes the process of merging three districts into one, is a model, though the consolidation process was highly controversial with many in the present three districts believing the ultimate goal was/is to close schools.
Lawmakers addressed that concern in the enabling legislation, requiring that voters get a say before any school is closed.
The same kind of angry concerns will be heard in other South Carolina districts if lawmakers push forward – but they must.
The groundwork was laid in 2018 with a proviso attached to the state budget bill giving the state superintendent of education the authority to consolidate administrative functions of school districts with less than 1,500 students. Superintendent Molly Spearman then set about mandating that districts such as Bamberg County 1 and 2 and Barnwell’s three districts consolidate some services.
The proviso was a step forward but not enough. Without further legislative action, it will expire at the end of this fiscal year in June, leaving the future of the effort to consolidate services in limbo.
It is hard for many at the local level to look at giving up autonomy. Hired administrators and elected officials with school districts cannot be blamed for looking at how to protect what they have in the name of preserving local control.
But the decision should not be theirs, since all school districts are dependent upon state appropriations. With the money must come standards that apply statewide.
The objective of the Legislature should be creating a single countywide school district in each of South Carolina’s 46 counties – including larger counties not affected by the budget proviso.
But the situation is most critical for small districts with shrinking student numbers and tax bases. There is simply no good reason to pay administrators and related personnel in multiple districts in counties with school districts with a student population smaller than many high schools in the state.
South Carolina has nearly double the number of school districts as it does counties -- 81 school districts, 46 counties. Eight school districts have less than 1,000 students.
According to a study released in 2017 by the S.C. Department of Education, $35-89 million could be saved by having school districts “modernize and/or collaborate” their services.
So far in 2019, some steps have been taken. The governor and key lawmakers have instructed the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office to devise a new funding formula for education. A bill in the state Senate would require smaller districts to merge beginning in 2020-21. And House Speaker Jay Lucas’ education reform package unveiled Thursday would require consolidation of small and poorly performing school districts.
As much as lawmakers will find themselves unpopular in some circles with the action, the General Assembly should push ahead, as in the case of Orangeburg County, with consolidation of districts in each county.