Cindi Ross Scoppe

Opponents say merging districts means closing schools. This is why they’re wrong

Orangerburg County’s three “consolidated” school districts — there were seven just two decades ago — will merge on July 1, 2013.
Orangerburg County’s three “consolidated” school districts — there were seven just two decades ago — will merge on July 1, 2013.

We’ve talked before about how school districts like to argue against consolidating districts by talking about how awful it would be to close local schools. It’s a bait and switch that is remarkably effective at undermining one of the smartest and most obvious ways to improve some of the poorest schools in our state.

I’ve explained before that there’s no reason to believe that the former will automatically usher in the latter, and I’ve noted that anyone who’s worried about that could simply address it in the consolidation law. That’s not just a theory. It’s precisely what Orangeburg County legislators did when they passed the law to combine that county’s three school districts into one.

Technically, the Orangeburg law doesn’t ban shutting down schools. But it erects so many barriers that it would be impossible to close one unless practically everyone — including the parents whose children attend a school — agrees.

Section 3(B)(5) of the Orangeburg law stipulates that “no elementary, middle, or high school may be closed until three public hearings are held at least two weeks apart within the affected attendance area, with information to include, among other things, a delineation of the cost factors involved in keeping the school open and transporting the students to another school. In addition to the public hearings requirement, if a school in an attendance area that existed before consolidation is to be closed and the students of that school moved to a school in another attendance area, the qualified electors within the attendance area where the school is to be closed also first must approve the closing by referendum. This referendum may not be held at the same time as a school bond referendum.”

That’s right, the duly elected school board can’t close a school without winning a close-the-school vote at a public referendum.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Orangeburg just merged school districts. Here’s why the rest of the state should too

Legislators’ first response to SC Supreme Court order should be consolidating school districts

Imagine if we built a brand-new school system for South Carolina

These aren’t wealthy-school problems

The painful journey from 1,200 SC school districts to 81

You can read the Orangeburg County consolidation bill here

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And just to make sure that a school board bent on closing a school doesn’t run it into the ground in order to bully parents into voting for closure, the law adds this requirement: “A school building that is the responsibility of the board of trustees of the school district must be maintained in conformity with all applicable building code standards and requirements to protect and ensure the health, safety, and welfare of students, faculty, administrators, and the general public.”

To be clear, I don’t think it’s smart policy to micromanage school boards like this. But contrary to what you’d believe if you just listened to district-consolidation opponents, it absolutely can be done.

And frankly, if that objection was the only thing standing in the way of consolidating districts, I would agree to it in a heartbeat. Better to have to keep open a school that needs to be closed than to continue paying the tremendous costs of maintaining too-small school districts.

And before anyone starts complaining that consolidating school districts doesn’t save money, that’s not what I mean when I refer to costs. Although consolidation CAN save money — just as it can save no money, or even cost money, if that’s the way the people in charge want it to work — saving money is not the primary reason to consolidate districts.

The main reasons to consolidate districts are to eliminate funding inequities between districts and to increase the talent pool for school board members and top administrators. And that in turn can save us, and save the students, 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.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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