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Want more state money? School districts should merge services first, SC superintendent says

A group of USC students, led by the Conservation Voters of S.C., visited Denmark-Olar Elementary School in Bamberg to weatherize two portable classrooms as a way of helping the "corridor of shame" school become more energy efficient and potentially recoup some money.
A group of USC students, led by the Conservation Voters of S.C., visited Denmark-Olar Elementary School in Bamberg to weatherize two portable classrooms as a way of helping the "corridor of shame" school become more energy efficient and potentially recoup some money. mbergen@thestate.com

S.C. public school districts may need more than a leaky roof or decrepit building to get state money that lawmakers may spend to improve aging schools.

Some school districts – especially small, rural ones – need to merge with their neighbors or consolidate services to cut costs, says S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.

A new study, released by the S.C. Department of Education, shows the savings could be big – from $35 million to $90 million in 32 rural school districts. Those districts sued the state in 1993, arguing they did not have enough money to educate their students.

However, convincing districts to consolidate will be a tough sell.

School districts offer small communities an identity they won’t surrender easily. Districts also vary widely in how much they pay teachers, the debts they owe and their ability to raise money locally – factors that could discourage districts from merging.

To encourage districts to consolidate or partner with neighboring districts, Spearman says the state could pitch in money to help ease burdens. For example, the state could make up the difference in teacher salaries between two merging school districts or give money to two districts that want new schools if they agree to merge and build only one.

“We need to include incentives ... to help these districts move forward,” she said.

Collaborating to cut costs

Lawmakers are weighing whether to spend millions in tax dollars to help school districts pay for building maintenance and repairs in the state budget that takes effect July 1. That proposal is part of an ongoing debate over how to answer a state Supreme Court ruling ordering the Legislature and schools to improve public education, especially in poor, rural areas.

More money could be on the way if lawmakers pass a bill that would allow the state to borrow money to build new schools and renovate old ones.

In the past, the responsibility of paying for new schools largely has been left to local districts. However, some poor districts do not have the tax base needed to raise money to renovate or build new facilities.

Those school districts must take steps to find savings on their own, Spearman said. “We want to be sure the money we spend on infrastructure is smart and sustainable.”

The study reviewed the finance, human resources, procurement, overhead and transportation costs of 32 school districts, which sued the state in what is known commonly as the Abbeville school-equity lawsuit.

The study found the districts could save roughly $35 million if they work in pairs to collapse administrative and transportation costs. Five school districts consolidating some services could save close to $90 million, the study found.

Some districts already are collaborating, said Saluda County School District superintendent David Mathis.

Saluda is part of a consortium of small school districts in the state’s western Piedmont region. Districts in the consortium work together on professional development opportunities and procurement, allowing them to get more competitive prices, he said.

But, Mathis added, “There is room for much more of that than we’re already doing.” For example, Mathis said he is open to consolidating transportation services with neighboring districts.

Consolidating small, struggling districts

Spearman said small school districts — those with 2,000 students or fewer — should consider consolidating with neighboring districts, especially if a small district is struggling to offer students a quality education.

Consolidating could save money that could be used to hire specialty teachers and offer new programs to students, giving them access to a better education, Spearman said.

However, consolidation is about more than saving money, Spearman said. “In these small, rural districts it’s very difficult to find the people with the expertise that you need in technology, in human resources, in curriculum. We have to use that information to plan for the future.

“To me, it’s about offering the best quality program we can for students,” she said, adding that may require districts “to make some decisions that might be emotional.”

Still, the state should not try to force districts to consolidate, Spearman and others say.

Scott Price, executive director of the S.C. School Boards Association, said lawmakers introduce bills to force South Carolina’s 80-plus school districts to consolidate every session, but they never pass.

For example, a House bill, introduced in December, would require only one school district in each of South Carolina’s 46 counties. The bill has only three sponsors in the 124-member House and still is languishing in committee.

“Unless the community buys into something like that, it’s very difficult to accomplish,” Price said.

The findings

What the study says: Thirty-two of the poor, rural school districts that sued the state in 1993 for more support could save between $35 million and $90 million if they worked with other districts to cut administrative and transportation costs.

Why it matters: Lawmakers are weighing whether to spend taxpayer money to help districts pay to improve their buildings, part of an ongoing effort to address the school-equity lawsuit. The House proposes spending $100 million; the Senate Finance Committee proposes spending $46 million.

Lawmakers also are weighing a bill that would allow the state to borrow money each year to help schools pay for new construction and renovations.

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