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The state Senate voted Wednesday on a proposal that would seek consolidation of seven small, rural S.C. school districts despite criticism from Republicans and Democrats that the bill should have been handled locally, rather than through a statewide bill.
The Senate voted 37-2 to make state financial support available to school districts in some of the state’s poorest counties that have less than 1,500 students if those districts submit plans for consolidation by August 2020 and get approval for the 2022-23 school year.
Districts fitting the criteria are Bamberg districts 1 and 2; Barnwell districts 19 and 29; Clarendon districts 1 and 3 and Hampton district 2.
The proposal now heads to the S.C. House.
Under the bill, the districts would have to submit a consolidation plan to the state’s Department of Education by August 2020, and include how it would use state money to merge services, which could include transportation for students. Once those districts get the nod for consolidation, the district would submit its plan to its local legislative delegation for further approval.
The proposal’s supporters said this week the legislation — filed by state Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken — would help some of the state’s financially struggling school districts lower administrative costs, thereby freeing up more money for the classroom.
Young’s bill is a piece of a growing conversation, including in rural districts that could be asked to merge, over whether it’s a good idea to consolidate school districts with shrinking enrollment, an effort supported by state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman.
“I think they realize that consolidation is coming,” state Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, said Tuesday, a day after meeting with Clarendon 1 and 3 superintendents and other district officials who are on board with the legislation, he said. “If we were talking about closing schools, that’s a different story.”
Further, Johnson said having state money set aside to help the consolidation makes the proposal that more appealing.
“That’s a vital part of the bill that that funding is going to be there,” he said.
Opponents successfully argued that legislators representing the county where a school district resides should have the authority to approve or veto a consolidation. As a result, the bill was amended to require a county legislative delegation’s blessing before any other school district with less than 1,500 students seeks state financial help in order to consolidate.
Still, that change was not enough to convince some lawmakers to support it.
“I believe in home rule,” said state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston – a county with one school district – who was one of two votes against the bill, joining state Sen. Michael Gambrell, R-Anderson – a county with five school districts.
“Local governments govern best,” Senn said.