The move to consolidate school districts in South Carolina is often misunderstood as an effort to close schools.
The libertarian-oriented legislative watchdog group the S.C. Policy Council offers these words: “District consolidation would only merge district-level positions, such as superintendents and administrators, which oversee groups of schools. School consolidation is a far more drastic measure that would merge individual schools, inevitably forcing some schools to close.”
Orangeburg County saw the fear of school closures dominate its debate in 2017 over a law consolidating the three present districts into one countywide unit. Lawmakers wisely put in place protections against school closures, requiring voter approval.
Ironically, the law consolidating Orangeburg County’s districts was the only one passed in the 2017-18 legislative session despite consolidation of districts around the state being a stated priority of politicians and education officials.
But there has been progress.
A proviso attached to the state budget bill in 2018 gave the state superintendent of education the authority to consolidate administrative functions of school districts with less than 1,500 students.
The process is underway with the superintendent giving officials in schools districts such as Bamberg County 1 and 2 a deadline to propose how they will consolidate some services. Other nearby districts affected are in Barnwell, Clarendon, Allendale and Hampton counties.
As much as the proviso is a step forward, it is not enough.
The Legislature when it returns in 2019 should give the force of law to the mandate to consolidate services. Without such action, the budget proviso will expire, 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.
Is this a guarantee of more efficiency and better education? No, but it is a necessary step. 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.
The state needs to put every dollar possible into education at the grassroots level – teaching.
According to reporting by the S.C. Policy Council, a legislative study committee created in 2005 revealed a direct correlation between district sizes and spending, as larger districts tended to spend less money on district-level administrative costs, allowing for more in-classroom spending.
The committee recommended that lawmakers find a way to consolidate school districts, stating that $21 million could be saved if the state adopted a one-district-per-county policy.
And according to a study released last year by the the S.C. Department of Education, $35-89 million could be saved by having school districts “modernize and/or collaborate” their services.
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.
The budget proviso authorizing merging services among small districts is not enough. Not only should the General Assembly give the effort the force of law, it should mandate, as in the case of Orangeburg County, that full consolidation of districts in each county proceed.