FOR EIGHT months, it’s been a mere prop in a juicy political drama — something you’d notice only if you read closely and deeply into the stories about the altercation just off the House floor between Orangeburg Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Jerry Govan.
Those articles have dutifully reported that the two “argued over a bill about consolidating Orangeburg County school districts just before the altercation.” Simply that, and nothing more.
But on the first day of this year’s legislative session, while everybody was focused on the fate of $20.5 million for new school buses that Gov. Henry McMaster had vetoed, the House and Senate quietly overrode the governor’s veto of that bill to turn Orangeburg County’s three school districts into one.
If you’re into drama, you could say that regardless of how the criminal case against Rep. Govan plays out, Rep. Cobb-Hunter has emerged as the clear winner, since she was the one who wanted the merger. If you’re into policy, and the education of some of the neediest children in South Carolina, you’d say those children won.
Enacting S.662 was not only the first but by far the most important thing the Legislature has done this year.
Gov. McMaster vetoed the bill because it gives Orangeburg County legislators control over the combined district’s first budget, before a new school board is elected, violating the state constitution’s separation of powers clause. He was correct to do that. Rep. Cobb-Hunter introduced a bill to transfer that temporary authority to the County Council, and the Senate tweaked that bill on Wednesday; the Legislature needs clear this up, to eliminate potential legal challenges to the new district. But whether it passes or not, we’re about to have two fewer school districts, and that is a major accomplishment.
Rep. Cobb-Hunter told me in the spring that this bill continues the process that started two decades ago when Orangeburg lawmakers consolidated the county’s eight districts down to three. “I understand people’s passion,” she said. “But it’s time. We can’t justify all of these districts.”
The S.C. Supreme Court’s 2014 Abbeville v. South Carolina school adequacy order was remarkably vague on how to accomplish its mandate for the state to provide a decent education to all children. Except in the area of consolidation. No, the court’s split ruling didn’t order the Legislature to consolidate small districts. But all five justices made it clear what they thought about the idea.
The majority noted that school 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.” It complained that instead of merging districts or even consolidating administrative functions, “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.
The dissenting justices noted 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.”
The majority in Abbeville has since become the minority, and the court has decided not to enforce its order. But that doesn’t change the fact that it makes no sense for a state with 46 counties to have 81 school districts — many so tiny that if you combined the 30 smallest districts, the new mega district still would have 23,000 fewer students than the Greenville County district.
It is great good news that, come July 1, 2019, we will be down to 79 districts. This painstakingly slow, district-by-district progress is how we’ve cut the total from 85 a decade ago. And 91 two decades before that. And 108 two decades before that. It is not so great news that even 18 months hence, we still will have 79 districts. Eight of them with fewer than 1,000 students each. Another nine with fewer than 2,000 students.
The upside of this painstakingly slow process is that consolidations have had strong public and political support (otherwise, they wouldn’t happen), albeit with some holdouts. The far larger downside is that it is … painstakingly slow. What we need is a statewide program of district consolidation, as the Supreme Court called for, as education reformers have called for, since forever.
This spring, the state Education Department concluded that the 32 poor, rural school districts that sued the state in 1993 for more support could save between $35 million and $90 million a year if they simply worked together to cut administrative and transportation costs. That’s just from consolidating support services. Mergers would also get rid of duplicative school superintendents and school boards.
But saving on administrative overhead isn’t the main reason to consolidate. Neither is improving course offerings, and making it easier to get the right sorts of specialists into every district — although those are benefits.
The main reason to consolidate districts is to increase the talent pool for school board members and top administrators. It’s to save us from school boards who treat the school district like a political-patronage factory, and superintendents who aren’t creative or energetic enough for the job. It’s to give children in those poor districts a better shot at getting the decent education that every one of us needs them to have.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.