Dorchester 2 single-member district bill advances to Senate

Community activist Louis Smith, seen here speaking before the Dorchester 2 school board, has been calling for single-member districts on the board for years, pointing to a lack of geographic and racial representation for some constituents.

A state House bill to divide up school board seats according to geographic areas in Dorchester County School District 2 has advanced to the Senate, despite opposition from the board itself.

The school board in Dorchester 2 is elected at large, meaning that every member represents the entire district. All seven of the sitting board members are white, and six of them live within a five-mile radius near downtown Summerville.

Civil rights activists have been pushing for single-member districts on the school board for years, pointing to a lack of representation even in some heavily populated areas, including the Dorchester Road corridor.

But most school board members oppose the plan, saying in a December resolution that single-member districts “will create a fragmented governance structure that will compromise the quality school system and will affect district-wide equity.”

Dorchester 2 board member Barbara Crosby said single-member districts would do more harm than good.

“I just don’t think that people would see us equally representing all the children because we’d be representing one little area, one little district,” Crosby said. “We represent all children.”

The bill passed three readings in the House of Representatives this week after receiving unanimous support in a roll call vote Tuesday. It has been placed on the Senate’s local and uncontested calendar, according to legislative records, but a date for a final vote has not been set.

Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, said he hopes the Dorchester County legislative delegation will hold public hearings on the matter before taking a vote.

“I’m not committed one way or another on the idea,” Bennett said. “I would like to hear from a lot of different players in the mix.”

In an amendment introduced by Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Summerville, the bill would also require Dorchester 2 to conduct a forensic audit of its finances at its own expense. Murphy has said that he wanted an audit to ensure the district’s house was in order before granting it fiscal autonomy from the county.

Under current law, every budget passed by the school board must go to Dorchester County Council for its approval. Some board members have chafed against the requirement in the past.

One vocal proponent of single-member districts, Louis Smith, said he was encouraged by the unanimous vote in the House, particularly as Republican and Democratic lawmakers voted in agreement on the matter.

“This is a major civil rights victory for Dorchester District 2,” Smith said. “I don’t know if I should be breaking out the champagne yet, but we’re close.”

Smith ran unsuccessful campaigns for a Dorchester 2 school board seat in 2012 and 2014. He said he does not plan to run for office again, even if the bill passes.

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.