Consolidating the state’s smallest public school districts and giving raises to rural teachers top a list of education priorities in the state Senate.
Tasked with improving education in rural communities, the Senate’s K-12 school equity panel agreed to add mergers and raises, and other priorities, to its agenda Wednesday.
One proposal would force school districts with 1,500 students or less to consolidate into a single district if they have a declining student population, and are struggling financially and academically.
For small school districts already operating countywide, the proposal would force them to collaborate with districts in neighboring counties on delivering major services.
Details still must be ironed out as the Senate panel works to draft the proposals into legislation.
However, the goal is to give school districts benefits or rewards in return for consolidating or collaborating with other districts, said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Camden Democrat who chairs the panel.
Support from Sheheen, the panel’s Democratic chairman, and state Sen. John Matthews, a Democrat from Orangeburg who has been involved in education policy debates for years, could mean lawmakers seriously will consider consolidation.
South Carolina’s 46 counties have more than 80 school districts. Merging some of those districts has been proposed for years, but the idea is unpopular in many rural areas, where schools are major employers and sources of identity and pride.
However, in some of the state’s smallest rural school districts, the number of students is dropping dramatically, creating the need to consolidate with neighboring school districts to save money, state schools chief Molly Spearman told the panel.
By the Education Department’s analysis, school districts in Bamberg, Barnwell, Clarendon, Florence and Hampton counties could be impacted by consolidation.
Allendale, Lee and Williamsburg also have small, struggling school districts. However, because those school districts operate countywide, they would not face consolidation. Instead, they would be forced to collaborate with other districts on administrative functions and delivering services.
Sheheen said he wants to maintain county boundaries for school districts.
Counties are “real communities” that “deserve some respect for self-governance and self-identification,” he said.
The panel also is looking into how much it would cost to raise teacher salaries in rural districts to the state average, a move that could help those districts recruit and retain teachers.
Matthews said getting districts to consolidate will be a heavy lift. However, if districts got something out of it, they may be more open to it, he said.
For example, he said, the small school districts in Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties “need a good technology center,” Matthews said. “They don’t have it.
“You have to have a benefit,” he said.