The state’s push to have smaller school districts consolidate into countywide entities for administrative purposes makes sense. To make it happen, the General Assembly authorized incentive money.

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Districts such as Bamberg County’s two have submitted proposals for consolidation – a plan that calls for a new administrative office for the consolidated district at a cost of $8.5 million and $450,000 to either pay severance or keep as consultants the top administrators from Bamberg and Denmark schools who lose their jobs. The Bamberg districts are not alone with “wish list” consolidation plans. In total, the eight districts statewide want $210 million to make the mergers happen, more than four times the money set aside by the legislature.

We’ve been a longtime advocate of consolidating administrative functions in the state’s school districts, including Bamberg’s. We’ve also contended that even larger counties should reduce administrative expenses through consolidating their districts into one countywide unit. And we supported the consolidation of Orangeburg County’s three districts into one, which became effective with this school year.

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But the Orangeburg experience to date is a disappointment. Lawmakers’ intention was to see the merger reduce expenses, particularly related to administration. New efficiencies were to be found with emphasis on the classroom and directly improving education in Orangeburg County. Ideally, consolidation was to result also in lower taxes.

Yet the new school board approved a budget for the countywide district that is nearly $4 million greater than the combined budgets of the three former districts. And while the tax bills are not yet finalized as the impact of debt has not yet been revealed, there is little likelihood of reduction.

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Message in voices of Sept. 11

There are more issues. This newspaper is frequently contacted by teachers, parents and interested parties about the schools. That was true before consolidation and continues. And while not all complaints can be treated as gospel, two are consistent in consolidation’s first year: too few teachers and too many administrators.

One group of parents and citizens writes: “This consolidation has not been a smooth transition to say the least. We really don’t think that those who were directly involved with this consolidation considered the students and teachers, but were more concerned about the politics of it. Our board members do not seem to have a clue about who to hire to lead this school district. … A lot of money and our hard-earned tax dollars were invested into superintendents ... This is definitely a ‘top heavy’ district.”

Orangeburg Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter was a leading proponent of consolidation here and supports the same in other counties. Yet she is right in what she told The Post and Courier of Charleston: Orangeburg County is no model for consolidation.

“The administrative costs are still too high. The board did not make the cuts that should’ve been made” at the district level. “So my advice to districts considering consolidation is to figure out how to make those tough decisions.”

Based on the consolidation proposals put forward by Bamberg’s districts and other small ones, which already have the highest per-pupil administrative costs, making tough decisions about reducing those costs is not the priority. So as much as the General Assembly is often accused of overstepping bounds and making demands of officials on the local level, lawmakers’ best approach is to go the route of mandates again with regard to school district consolidations and what they must achieve in the way of cost savings and improved classroom experiences.

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