TOM BRYANT’S footnote in S.C. history is that his 1987 testimony against Circuit Judge Rodney Peeples put then-Rep. Jean Toal on the state Supreme Court.
Judge Peeples had made all the right connections and had more than enough votes lined up in the Legislature to win a seat on the high court when Mr. Bryant went public with allegations that the judge had lied under oath and in other ways violated judicial ethics in an estate case in which the judge was the executor and his daughters the sole beneficiaries.
It looked for weeks as though the Legislature was going to elect Judge Peeples despite that explosive testimony, and despite the fact that four of the eight members of the Legislature’s judicial screening committee said he was unfit to be a Supreme Court justice. Then suddenly the judge withdrew from the race, just two legislative days before the vote. This left his most ardent supporters insisting that he had done nothing wrong, and scrambling to line up a replacement candidate to challenge Mrs. Toal, and it prompted Mr. Bryant to sit down for a lengthy interview with me, in which he chronicled the judge’s extensive efforts to keep the story quiet.
In the nearly two decades since, charming notes have arrived periodically from the Orangeburg attorney, first hand-written and later by email.
I tell you all this because Mr. Bryant’s latest note arrived this month, and it contained a fascinating bit of background concerning what might well become the defining decision of Chief Justice Toal’s career: her majority opinion in Abbeville County School District v. State, which found that the Legislature had unconstitutionally denied children in our poorest school districts of the education they need to succeed in life.
The high court didn’t spell out a remedy, but it strongly suggested that one part of the remedy should be consolidating adjacent districts that are so tiny that the administrative costs add significantly to their budgets and the small number of students makes it prohibitively expensive to hire the sorts of professionals who could improve the quality of education. And this is where Mr. Bryant’s story picks up.
“Up until the late forties,” he wrote, “Orangeburg County had 56 separate school districts, almost one for each school throughout our large land-wise, rural county. My father had been elected to the Senate in 1944 and, following the recommendation of a commission, prompted by a study done by the Peabody Institute, helped lead a fight to consolidate those 56 districts down to a manageable size. As a compromise to the reaction from each small community to be affected, the county ended up with eight districts, one for the large Orangeburg city and environs, and one for each of the little towns throughout the county, Holly Hill, Elloree, Branchville, Bowman, Cope-Cordova, Norway-Springfield and North. Orangeburg District 5 had thousands of students but the others did not. The new set up helped. Only recently did we consolidate the eight down to what I think is now three, so that at the present pace we might reach some level of fairness and efficiency in another generation or two.”
In this regard, Orangeburg County was hardly unique. There were more than 1,200 school districts in South Carolina in 1950. Within a decade, following a nationwide trend toward consolidation, there were 108, and today there are 81, with a new consolidation every few years. But those consolidations did not come without a cost.
of the status quo
“My father was a loser in all of this,” Mr. Bryant continued. “He was what our family thought a good, honest and hardworking small town lawyer, willing to give up his law practice for a large part of the year, to help his constituents, but obviously a terrible politician. Never did it occur to ‘Pa’ that in leading this effort, he was alienating 48 small school boards and their members, who had for years ruled over each little kingdom as if it was in fact a kingdom, not to mention their families and friends who refused to believe this consolidation could be good for anyone.”
Sen. Bryant was soundly defeated in the next election by an opponent who hammered him for eliminating those 48 districts. And herein lies a truth that most people do not realize: In many cases, it’s not the legislators who want to preserve the tiny districts. Rather, legislators preserve the status quo because they understand Mr. Bryant’s story, even if they’ve never heard it. The people who are determined to maintain the inefficiency and inequity inherent in those tiny little school districts are the school officials and, most distressingly, the people who live in those tiny districts, whose children are getting cheated out of a decent education in part because of this arrangement.
A quick aside to illustrate this point: A few days before I heard from Mr. Bryant, I received an email from a man from Pamplico who was offended that I had mistakenly written that Florence District 2 was too small, at just 732 students, when in fact it was District 4 that has just 732 students. And he was right to be offended; I was wrong. But it turns out that District 2 has just 1,221 students — about the size of the rural high school I attended in North Carolina; yet my correspondent insisted that it needed to remain an independent district. And then he chronicled the struggles his tiny district faces:
“As a rural school district we have lost all our industry, and some our best and brightest teachers, who were almost all local products of our district through retirement and richer districts offering more pay. To offset this we have stepped to the plate with the highest school tax in the county. To replace our outstanding teachers that have retired and left for high pay, we have to hire new teachers, that are recent college graduates with no experience due to our limited budget. Our county leaders tell that with no interstate, recruiting industry is near impossible so no hope is in sight. I asked our county chairman when they recruit industry for Florence do they use tax money for city of Florence or the entire county. His answer was, we tax the entire county. I asked if the money generated from these industries was shared county wide, he said no Florence county district 1 gets all the money, district 2 gets nothing.”
The painful irony of his complaint — which you can hear in any tiny rural district — is that consolidating the Florence County districts would allow those poorer schools to share in the revenue that now remains in the wealthier schools in the city of Florence. That is, it would address the very problem that my correspondent cites.
Back in Orangeburg, Tom Bryant is concluding his note: “I think if my father had known he was going to lose his seat, he would have conspired to a consolidation to one district, as should have been done, but of course that would never have passed.
“This was 65 years ago! We are still fighting the same battle. Wonder how long it will take.”
A student of the Butterfly Effect would say that it was Mr. Bryant who, in ending Judge Peeple’s candidacy 27 years ago, set in motion the forces that soon could complete the task his father started 38 years before that.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.