It was emotional and controversial. There was misinformation and worry that their child’s school — one their parents often had attended themselves decades before — would close. There was outrage, anger and a court case settled last year.
“We had quite a bit of that,” recalled town of Santee Mayor Donnie Hilliard, an Orangeburg County native.
By summer, however, the last three Orangeburg County school districts will consolidate into one, merging offices and administration, but not schools. Last fall, Orangeburg voters elected a new, nine-member school board, charged with crafting policy and hiring an interim superintendent, to oversee the merged school district.
Now, other S.C. school districts — mostly in poor, rural areas — may face a similar future as state leaders target districts where student opportunities are slim and where, they say, too much money goes into administration and not enough flows into classrooms.
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As part of a major State House effort to overhaul the state’s K-12 education system, legislators once again are debating whether to force school districts with shrinking student enrollment to either consolidate or merge more of their services with other districts.
Growing counties with multiple school districts — including Lexington, Richland and Spartanburg — are not being targeted by the merger push.
Gov. Henry McMaster and two key Republican legislators Thursday directed the state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs chief Frank Rainwater to craft a new education funding formula that includes options or incentives to encourage school districts to merge or share services among neighboring districts.
That same day, a state Senate panel debated Senate Bill 203. If passed, it would require some school districts — those meeting at least two of four criteria, including having fewer than 1,500 students — to merge, starting in the 2020-21 school year.
The state’s Department of Education has identified 13 rural school districts with less than 1,500 students each, requiring all 13 to show how they are sharing services — such as maintenance or technology costs or educational programs — with other districts.
So far, the state has recorded some successes.
Sharing some services with Florence School Districts 1 and 2 has saved that county’s District 4 $600,000 in the past year, cutting its administrative costs, including in human resources and maintenance expenses, said state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, R-Saluda.
“This is a very important bill,” Spearman said Thursday of Senate Bill 203, proposed by state Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, to force small school districts to merge.
But, she added, “It’s an emotional bill. I know the deep love that community members have for their schools and for their school districts.”
‘The schools are the towns’
The merger that takes place July 1 in Orangeburg will mark the second round of district consolidation in that county’s history over the last 20 years.
The path to the latest merger was rocky, the final obstacle being removed last year when legislators overrode Gov. McMaster’s veto of a bill merging the three school districts.
County leaders say they have tried to ensure residents of a smooth transition, pulling together an 18-member panel to oversee the process.
“We had 18 people that arrived on Day 1 with 18 different ideas on how to do it (consolidate),” recalled Santee’s Hilliard, who chaired the transition committee. “We took approximately seven months to try and mold those 18 individual ideas into one team with a concept.”
The idea of merging school districts has been tossed around the State House for years, as South Carolina slowly has seen the number of districts in its 46 counties hover around 80 from, at one point, more than 100.
But the effort is controversial.
On one side, supporters say merging saves money or, at least, allows some of the money once spent on having three superintendents — in Orangeburg’s case, for example — to go into classroom instruction. Larger school districts also can draw school board members from a broader pool of residents, and can afford better administrators and teachers.
Others, however, say merging doesn’t ensure more students succeed in the classroom and cost savings can be slow to show up.
Consolidation also can be an explosive issue in school districts, where mergers can create rifts in communities where neighborhoods were built around schools.
“In many areas, the schools are the towns,” said state Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and an Orangeburg school system employee. “The existence of schools in these communities is, basically, what has kept these communities alive.”
To get around the school-closing fear in Orangeburg, the legislation merging its districts includes a requirement that, for a period of years after the consolidation, there must be public hearings and the voters in a school’s attendance zone must approve closing the facility.
But state officials say consolidation is not about closing schools or saving money. Any money saved through a merger should go back into classrooms to ensure students have better educational opportunities, Superintendent Spearman said Thursday.
“You will not be popular if you choose to do this,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, a supporter of Orangeburg’s consolidation. “But ... it was not about being popular but about doing what is best for the children of Orangeburg County.”
‘The longer you put it off, the more difficult it will be’
Consolidation is “complicated,” Govan said.
But state and county leaders say that is to be expected.
“We, too, believe we need to provide more opportunities for students,” said Debbie Elmore of the state’s School Boards Association, who told state senators Thursday that group is not opposed to requiring mergers. But, she added, “Mandated consolidation ... does work best when there is some stakeholder involvement at the local level.”
Sharing services — such as maintenance or technology support or hiring — may be more preferable to many school districts and local leaders.
But shared services could prove to be a half-measure that avoids the tougher fix that is needed — mergers — to bring about real change, Oran Smith, a senior fellow at the Palmetto Promise Institute conservative think tank, told senators Thursday.
“If the Legislature and the Department (of Education) were to simply say, ‘We don’t have the courage to go for full consolidation, let’s just share services,’ I really think we’re wasting the opportunity there,” Smith told The State on Friday.
Instead of half-measures, the state needs a grand solution to fix a grand problem, Smith added.
Even some progressives agree.
“My advice would be to just do it (consolidate),” Rep. Cobb-Hunter said. “The longer you put it off, the more difficult it will be.”
Last summer, S.C. lawmakers attached a law to the 2018-19 state budget requiring 13 rural school districts to consolidate services with nearby districts. The districts — each with less than than 1,500 students in the 2017-18 school year — are:
▪ Allendale: 1,159 students
▪ Bamberg 1: 1,366 students
▪ Bamberg 2: 655 students
▪ Barnwell 19: 597 students
▪ Barnwell 29: 897 students
▪ Clarendon 1: 764 students
▪ Clarendon 3: 1,266 students
▪ Florence 2: 1,144 students
▪ Florence 4: 689 students
▪ Florence 5: 1,227 students
▪ Greenwood 51: 941 students
▪ Hampton 2: 711 students
▪ McCormick: 780 students