Lexington County’s River Bluff and Swansea high schools a lesson in disparity and complexity

This is a tale of two schools, two school districts and two superintendents who share a border and a view that a new vision is needed to remedy the glaring inequities in their Lexington County classrooms.

About 25 miles separate Swansea High School from River Bluff High School. But the two schools – one built in 1976, the other in 2013 – are light years removed in terms of facilities and opportunities they can offer.

The schools, neighbors in Lexington 4 and Lexington 1, are poster children for the complex debate going on in the South Carolina Legislature over how best to fund public schools.

It is a debate that has emerged out of a 22-year-old lawsuit brought by rural districts, including Lexington 4, that have a limited tax base and pockets of poverty. Lexington 4, home to Swansea High, was one of the original plaintiffs in Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina and the only Midlands district to be included.

“We all want what’s best for our children,” said Linda Lavender, Lexington 4’s superintendent. “We do not, by any means, want to take anything from anybody else.

“It’s about bringing everybody up, about bringing the whole state up.”

But the best in each of the state’s 84 school districts has been shaped over time by economics, jobs, race, the dynamics of an industrial tax base and loyalty to the way things have always been.

Add to that the complexities and unevenness of local property taxation rules and changes made by the state Legislature to education formulas over two decades, and even the most visionary of thinkers can wind up in a confusing thicket.

Lexington 1 Superintendent Karen C. Woodward, presiding over one of the more prosperous districts and some of the state’s best high schools, said the issue requires long-range solutions rather than short-term remedies.

“What we really need to do is to decide what it takes for every child in South Carolina to have a 21st century education and then plan backward,” Woodward said.

A high school of the future

That’s what Woodward did as she and her Lexington 1 planning team mapped out the construction of a school a year over each of the past 14 years and what sort of instruction would take place inside, she said.

The district is one of the state’s fastest-growing, with more than 24,000 students.

“When we designed the school of the future in 2007 we realized that we wanted to shift our learning model – and it required collaborative space and a different kind of schedule,” she said.

River Bluff, with its light-filled, technology-laden classrooms, open collaborative spaces, and pillars and walls decorated with beige river rocks, is an architectural feast for the eye.

Designed to be a “high school of the future,” it cost nearly $139 million and boasts some of the finest science laboratories, arts venues and sports facilities in the state. There are two theaters and an outdoor amphitheater, an art gallery, a music recording studio and a video broadcast center. Its more than 1,700 students can stop by a coffee bar on their way to class for a decaffeinated drink and snack.

Lexington 1’s high schools include River Bluff, Lexington, Gilbert, Pelion and White Knoll. While the percentage of Lexington 1 students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch hovers at about 50 percent, at River Bluff that figure is under 20 percent.

Principal Lucas C. Clamp said he knows he is fortunate to preside over a high school where teachers are “facilitators of learning” and students are taught to become independent learners, “masters of content,” so they can be ready for college and a career.

“We really believe in that relationship with students,” said Clamp, a native of Barnwell County whose mother served as superintendent of schools there.

Kathryn Cherup, the senior class president who is headed to Clemson University in the fall, said her move to River Bluff in her junior year changed her whole outlook about preparing for her future after high school.

“It has been amazing,” said Cherup, one of 40 River Bluff “teacher cadets” who gets a taste of an education career by student-teaching once a week in an elementary classroom. “I have built relationships with so many different adults.”

No frills, lots of loyalty

Down S.C. 321, Swansea High School is the lone high school in Lexington 4, a district of about 3,500 students tucked away in the southern part of the county.

There is little industry here and few job opportunities; a majority of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs.

At Swansea, students have to push back the tables in the cafeteria to establish an auditorium for their arts productions, the small stage hidden by velvet curtains. The hallways are cheerful but narrow, reminiscent of the architecture of the 1970s. Currently, the school offers four Advanced Placement classes for its brightest students; the class of 2015 will graduate without benefit of individual Google Chromebooks.

“We don’t have a lot of frills,” principal Bryan Evans said last week.

But the community has a great deal of pride, especially in its signature sports teams and its Junior ROTC program, and a cohesive small town feel that he believes is missing in large, suburban school districts. Evans knows nearly every student by name.

Shannon Spires, a senior from Gaston who is headed to The Citadel this fall, has found her niche in the school’s Junior ROTC program, led by Maj. Michael Williams. She is commander of the battalion, one of the largest in the state.

While Spires regrets not having a school-issued computer, she believes she has taken advantage of what Swansea High offers.

“I’m in AP and honors classes, so I feel I’m set up to go to college and start my career,” Spires said.

“I think our community values what we give our students,” Evans said, particularly the focus on project-based learning. “We help each other to overcome and achieve.”

“I don’t look at the things we don’t have,” said Evans, a native of Schuyler, Va., who graduated from USC-Aiken. “I try to focus on the things I can control here.”

But, he said, “it’s only natural” to sometimes wonder why his students don’t have the resources that some other Midlands school districts boast.

Confusion of formulas

In South Carolina, construction of new buildings is not financed from state funds but by bond referenda in each locality.

And the tax base and property assessments vary greatly by district.

One piece of legislation before the Legislature would establish a statewide property tax rate.

Under the S.C. Jobs, Education and Tax Act introduced by state Reps. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester, and Mia McLeod, D-Richland, taxes paid by industries would be spread among all schools in the state’s 46 counties. The idea is to help eliminate the disparity in the amount of money that industry-poor rural counties now can spend on schools.

Woodward, the Lexington 1 chief, has long advocated for an “infrastructure bank” that would provide districts that have limited tax bases a pool of money for building construction. The last time an assessment was made, there was more than $1 billion worth of needs statewide.

But the recession in 2008 put the brakes on buildings. “Everything stopped, even the proposals to improve state funding for operations,” she said. “I’m hopeful that now we are at a point we can determine what we need in terms of operations and facilities – and work out that plan.”

Lavender, Lexington 4’s superintendent, isn’t holding her breath.

“It’s just been this way forever,” she said. “You make some bold decisions about some things, like the early childhood center” that Lexington 4 built after voters approved a $19.6 million bond referendum in 2007.

“I don’t know that we deal with equity,” she said. “That is not something that drives us. What we do here is we take what we have and we serve students in the best way possible.”

More attention has been paid to the swath of poor, rural and largely African-American counties along the Interstate 95 corridor in the state’s Pee Dee region, localities profiled in the 2005 documentary “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools.”

Lexington 4’s proximity to the more prosperous districts of Lexington 1, Lexington-Richland 5 and Richland 2 sometimes means its problems get lost in the shuffle.

But Lavender said her fellow Lexington superintendents are a collegial and supportive group and have bandied around all kinds of ideas, including consolidating some of the counties’ large and small districts. Lavender said she would be willing to step down if her district were merged with another.

There is, of course, also the plethora of taxing formulas, exemptions and regulations in the funding of public schools that make the average citizen’s head spin.

While school building construction is financed through bonds and borrowing, the tax base and property assessments vary greatly by district, especially when industry taxes are written off. That has traditionally meant the education of children in rural areas is more expensive than in urban areas.

To illustrate the difference between Lexington 1 and Lexington 4 and the mills, or rates, used to calculate their property taxes, Lexington 1’s chief finance officer John Butler explained it this way: “Lexington 1 property assessments are a total of $480,849,680, meaning the value of a mill is $480,849.68, and on non-owner occupied property, it’s $240,151,670. So the value of a mill for operations is worth $240,151.67.

“In Lexington 4, the total property assessments are $31,915,070, so the value of a mill is $31,915.07, and for operations Lexington 4’s property assessments are $19,665,170. So the value of a mill for operations is $19,665.17.”

“So to generate the same amount of operational dollars, Lexington 4 would need to levy 12.2 mills for every 1 mill Lexington 1 levies,” he said.

County leaders have tried to reduce the inequity a bit by spreading the wealth from county-developed industrial areas.

The plan gives schools the bulk of fees paid by firms such as online retailer Amazon, which received property tax breaks to locate in those areas.

An initial payout of $600,000 last year is expected to rise to $2 million annually soon.

The plan, using a combination of population and enrollment in each district, gives Lexington 1 nearly half of taxes generated, with Lexington 4 getting 7.1 percent.

Lexington 1, covering near half of the 758-square-mile county, is the big winner, while Lexington 4 gets a slice it wouldn’t have otherwise.

None of the three industrial areas are in those two districts.

Staff writer Tim Flach contributed to this story.