SOUTH CAROLINA has 46 counties and 81 school districts, and if you combined the 30 smallest districts, the new mega district still would have 20,000 fewer students than the Greenville County district.
Now, maybe Greenville’s district is larger than optimal, at 74,000 students. But clearly Allendale District 1, at 1,321 students, is too small. Clearly, Hampton 2, with 783 students, is too small. Clearly Florence District 4, with 732 students, is too small.
Too small to make financial sense: It drives up costs to no good effect when you have to hire one superintendent for 732 students and one finance director for 732 students and one transportation director for 732 students, instead of one of each for, say, 4,000 students. Or 70,000.
Too small to make academic sense: With only 732 students, you can’t afford administrators to develop curriculum and training for science teachers or math teachers or even reading teachers, so they’re on their own. With only 732 students, you can’t afford to offer the higher-level classes that students need to get into a decent college.
And certainly too small, as the state Supreme Court noted this month, to be blaming all of their troubles on the fact that the Legislature doesn’t give them enough money.
It is not news that South Carolina has too many school districts, and particularly too many tiny districts, which tend to be clustered together. What is news is the giant bull’s eye the high court drew on those tiny districts in its landmark decision ordering the Legislature to start providing a decent education to children in our poorest districts.
Although the long-awaited order in Abbeville County School District v. State accepted the argument that the Legislature was failing to provide students the education they need to become productive citizens, the justices made it clear that the districts shared blame for their plight.
Chief Justice Jean Toal called it “striking” that neither the poor districts nor the Legislature had even considered “the possible adverse impact” of having so many small districts, something both legislators and the districts support. She observed that districts with only three or four schools have “administrative costs which are disproportionate to the number of students served by that district, and which divert precious funding and resources from the classroom.”
Instead of merging districts or even consolidating their administrative functions, she wrote, “the Plaintiff Districts have opted for a course of self-preservation, placing all blame for the blighted state of education in their districts at the feet” of the state.
In a rare point of agreement, Associate Justice John Kittredge noted in his dissent that the districts “ask this Court to order the General Assembly to spend more money, yet these school districts are unwilling for the sake of the children to forgo their power and consolidate districts so that more funds can be devoted to the students, teachers, and classroom instruction.”
Indeed, in an opinion that is big and bulky and vague, that provides an obscenity-like target (we’ll know it when we see it) and no road map for reaching the target, the too-many-tiny-districts problem is the one clear signpost the justices offered.
It’s a signpost our legislators ought to pay attention to.
Consolidating tiny school districts — six of the eight plaintiff districts are among those 30 smallest districts — certainly won’t solve a problem that has been generations in the making. I suspect the justices drew that target on this issue for the same reason that we fixate on the $300 cap on automobile sales taxes when we complain about our Swiss-cheese tax code: Even though there are bigger loopholes, that’s the sore thumb, the poster child, the problem that’s just so obvious that you can’t ignore it — unless you’re a member of the Legislature. And our legislators’ refusal to deal with such an obvious problem speaks volumes of their priorities, and just who it is they think they work for.
Our Legislature’s willingness to consolidate districts would speak volumes to its commitment to complying with the court order. Unlike other solutions legislators will have to come up with (changes to the curriculum, for instance, and school funding formulas), this one is fairly straightforward, and it won’t cost money.
The order probably applies to all 36 districts that filed the original lawsuit. But if our legislators are smart — and please, dear Lord, let them be smart — they will reform the entire education system, and not just those 36 districts, and certainly not just the eight named in the lawsuit. Not just through consolidation but in the more complex areas.
Against that prayer, the biggest question in my mind is whether lawmakers should consolidate to one district per county — which would be huge — or do something radical.
A few years back, then-Rep. Rex Rice proposed creating a single school district, with 40 population-based local councils to handle discipline and hire and fire superintendents and principals. He saw it as the only way we would ever stop dividing our state between the haves, which provide a top-rate education to kids lucky enough to live there, and the have-nots, which cheat the kids and drive off employers with ever higher tax rates that never can generate enough money to match the rich districts’ spending.
That’s something we have needed to do since forever. It is essentially what our Supreme Court now has ordered lawmakers to do.
Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified Florence 2 instead of Florence 4 as the district with just 732 students.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached