Where does S.C. Stand on School District Consolidation?

By South Carolina Policy Council

Each year, the state spends millions on duplicative administrative positions that could be used in the classroom. Instead of overhauling South Carolina’s antiquated school district model, lawmakers have historically taken little action towards true reform.

One small step in the right direction was a proviso inserted this year’s budget allowing the Superintendent of Education to consolidate administrative functions of school districts with less than 1,500 students. The superintendent has already begun this process by ordering a number of smaller rural districts to combine services. Estimated savings in one district alone will be about $600,000. However, this type of policy belongs in the law, not a budget proviso – as it will expire next year unless lawmakers decide to reauthorize it.

In contrast is last year’s H.3023, which would have merely created a committee to “study the feasibility and cost effectiveness of consolidating the school districts within the individual counties of this State.” The law did not pass, and even if it had, it would not have done anything to fix the school districts. Study committees can only recommend changes, not determine policy, and their typical impact is to simply give lawmakers time to delay progress on an issue without taking any real action. More importantly, the potential cost savings from district consolidation were conclusively shown by another study committee lawmakers created over a decade ago.

Among other things, this committee (created in 2005 by budget proviso) revealed no clear methodology or formula behind the state’s numerous school districts. It also revealed a direct correlation between district sizes and spending, as larger districts tended to spend less money on district-level administrative costs, allowing for more in-classroom spending. The committee recommended that lawmakers find a way to consolidate school districts, stating that $21 million could be saved if state adopted a one district per county policy.

According to a study released last year by the State Department of Education (DOE), $35 million to $89 million could be saved by having school districts “modernize and/or collaborate” their services. Even the S.C. Supreme Court has proposed district consolidation as a potential solution to cut down spending.

School districts by the numbers:

• South Carolina has nearly double the number of school districts as it does counties (81 school districts, 46 counties)

• Most counties in the state only have one school district. However, 15 counties have multiple districts, including Spartanburg County which has seven in total.

• There are eight school districts in SC with less than 1,000 students. By comparison, most high schools in the state have more students than this.

• In 1950 there were 1,220 school districts, illustrating a historical trend towards district consolidation.

Obstacles to consolidation

With multiple parties in support of consolidation, and the numbers to back it up, why is the process moving so slowly?

One reason is that “district consolidation” and “school consolidation” are often incorrectly confused with each other. These are two entirely separate proposals. District consolidation would only merge district-level positions, such as superintendents and administrators, which oversee groups of schools. School consolidation is a far more drastic measure that would merge individual schools, inevitably forcing some schools to close.

Another oft-cited concern is that merging districts would result in job loss. This is likely true: combining school districts would result in the elimination of duplicative district-level positions – which is the entire point. Every dollar spent at the district level is a dollar that could be spent on teachers. Given that qualified teachers are in short supply, it is difficult to justify paying for administrative positions that a number of experts agree are unnecessary.

Legislation short of reform

Lawmakers during the 2017-18 legislative session had several chances to seriously address this issue, but the only measures to become law were H.4397, which consolidated Orangeburg County’s three school districts into one, and the budget proviso allowing consolidation in the smallest districts, as well as districts in financial difficulty.

One proposed bill would have effectively expanded and codified that budget proviso– requiring that school districts have at least 2,500 students to receive state funding. Another bill would have mandated that each county be considered its own school district, also known as a “one county, one district” policy, a policy that 31 of 46 counties in the state already meet. Several other states in the Southeast also use this method, including Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia. Neither of these bills made it out of committee, however.

The legislature has the information and resources necessary to tackle this issue. South Carolina does not need another study committee in the place of essential reforms allowing for more classroom spending in the future.

Author: Stephan Drew

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