By Andy Brack, editor and publisher | If you wonder why some counties have three, five or even seven school districts, you can probably turn to two culprits: High school football games and nepotism.
Schools knit together many poor, rural communities. People take great pride in their local teams and the next closest school district – particularly one in the same county – may be the biggest rival, making it hard for many to envision embracing a gridiron enemy in any proposed merger of school districts into one county district.
Furthermore, members of school boards in these smaller districts develop power bases that allow them to wield power, and in some cases, push the buttons of nepotism to keep people in jobs when a school might be better off without those folks.
Columbia filmmaker Bud Ferillo, who captured the plight of rural schools in his movie Corridor of Shame, said he has long favored consolidation of smaller districts.
“School districts in small districts are quite often defenders of the status quo, hampering changes recommended by superintendents, protecting poor teachers, and tolerating poor academic performance when they should be insisting on high performance,” he told Statehouse Report.
In rural communities, people will tell you privately that they instinctively know their small district needs to be consolidated with an adjacent district to ensure better outcomes for students. But it’s hard. Very hard.
South Carolina’s 46 counties currently have just over 80 school districts. Some are high-performing, such as the seven districts in Spartanburg County. But many of the 34 poor districts that sued the state more than 20 years ago for better funding are challenged with persistent budget and infrastructure issues.
A new state study shows that if these poorer, rural districts were to merge back-end functions, such as accounting, human resources, procurement and transportation, they could save $35 million to $89.6 million over five years which, in turn, could be steered to more services to students.
“The report clearly shows that consolidation and collaboration of services should be a top agenda item for districts,” said state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman in a news release.
Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown said the study provides lots of data that state lawmakers and agency officials can use to make better decisions about school funding, particularly in rural areas. It could lead to state incentives to encourage consolidation, something Spearman has been pushing for a long time.
“We certainly have the data to back up and show this is a cost savings and provide additional expertise and student opportunities,” he said.
While combining administrative and transportation functions among small school districts into a county system – even if allowing the individual districts to maintain a separate identity – would be a step ahead, lawmakers should be cautious about focusing only on cost savings to fuel improvements in these poor, rural schools.
The point of the Abbeville equitable funding case was to find new ways to invest in rural public schools, not pay $3 million for studies to show enough money is already going into these schools and that it just has to be spent more efficiency and creatively.
Notes Bernadette Hampton, president of The South Carolina Education Association, “While The SCEA supports the concept [of consolidation], we do have a lot of questions like, ‘Will the communities have the commitment from the General Assembly to consistently and adequately fund the school districts once they are consolidated?’”
Scott Price, head of the S.C. School Boards Association who supports the concept of consolidation, also has questions, including, ‘Is it truly a cost savings? In looking to consolidate districts, will there be a need to equalize salaries? Will one district need to absorb another’s debt? What are the tax rates in districts looking to consolidate?’”
It is smart to spend existing money more wisely. But these smaller districts, underfunded and ignored for decades, need more money overall, too. They need better facilities and the kind of high-quality teachers found in high-performing districts in places like Greenville and Spartanburg. And that takes money.
So let’s really look at consolidation. Let’s push efficiencies and savings. But let’s also invest more big dollars in rural areas so their educational opportunities are equivalent to those elsewhere.
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