Lawmakers seek to protect rural schools from closing

Somer Keller teaches her first-grade class at Jane Edwards Elementary on Edisto Island. Small schools like Jane Edwards, which had just over 80 students last year, could be on the chopping block as the Charleston County School District looks to cut costs.

As the Charleston County School Board looks to cut costs to avoid another budget crisis, state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make it harder to shut down small, high-cost schools.

House Bill 5195, introduced Tuesday by three Charleston County Democrats, would create a new set of requirements for the board to fulfill before closing a “rural school,” defined as any school with fewer than 750 students.

“It’s the rural community they pick on first,” said co-sponsor Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood. “They just feel that folks are not going to say much, that it’s the low-hanging fruit, and I don’t think it’s going to happen this time around.”

Under the terms of the bill, which would apply only to Charleston County schools, the district would have to hold three public hearings in the affected community before shutting down a school, with a majority of school board members present. The board would then have to prove that closing the school would result in a tax rate decrease for county residents.

In the wake of last school year’s $18 million budget shortfall, district leaders are seeking to shrink the 2016-17 budget. School board members have not proposed closing small schools, but three committees of school principals have all recommended the measure, according to district documents, and Interim Chief Financial Officer Glenn Stiegman repeated the recommendation at a board meeting Monday.

Asked for a response, School Board Chair Cindy Bohn Coats pointed out that about three-quarters of the district’s schools would classify as “rural” under the bill’s definition.

“I have the utmost respect for our elected officials and appreciate their dedication to the wellbeing of the children of South Carolina,” Coats said. “In particular, I thoroughly enjoy working with all the members of our local delegation as they serve our communities.”

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