School budget woes may spell end for Lincoln Residents of rural area expected to fight back, constituent chair says

Shaunleese Taylor (center), Samesha Singleton and Tamel Oree lower and fold the United States and South Carolina flags that fly at Lincoln Middle-High as the school day comes to a close in February 2015. The small school in rural McClellanville is on the chopping block as the Charleston County School District looks to balance next year’s budget.

The Charleston County School District is considering closing the doors at rural Lincoln Middle-High School in the fall in an attempt to balance the budget.

About 200 residents of McClellanville, Awendaw and the rural northern stretches of the county heard the official word from District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait in a meeting Tuesday night at the school, where she reportedly said she would make the recommendation to the county school board at an upcoming meeting. High school students would be sent to already-packed Wando High in Mount Pleasant, and middle school students would go to the campus of St. James-Santee Elementary in McClellanville.

Parents and teachers in rural parts of the county have known for months that their schools could be closed in the wake of last school year’s $18 million budget deficit. As the district started looking for cuts to make this spring, anonymous committees of district staff and school principals recommended closing small schools, where low student populations tend to drive up per-pupil costs.

Thomas L. Colleton Jr., chairman of the Constituent District 1 Board that represents the area around Lincoln, said many parents were upset by the news Tuesday night.

“The perception is that they’re trying to balance the budget on the backs of the children, and that issue was brought up several times last night,” Colleton said. “All the schools on the chopping block have one thing in common: They’re rural, and they’re predominately black schools.”

Colleton said his constituents are not likely to take the school’s closure lying down. He said residents had already reached out to the National Action Network seeking to establish a local chapter and push back against the closure of their school, which had just 156 students last year.

Nationally, rural schools are often targeted for closure during tight budget years, and Lincoln Middle-High is no exception. District 1 constituent board members have complained for years about a lack of support for their schools, and this year they have taken the district to task for allowing many of their students to transfer to schools elsewhere in the county, allegedly skirting the constituent board’s authority in authorizing transfers.

Lincoln spends about $23,900 per student, making it the second-most expensive school in the district by that measure. It trails only Liberty Hill Academy, a program devoted to students with special needs and disabilities. Wando High spent just over $7,500 for each of its 3,860 students last year, making it the district’s least expensive high school for per-pupil spending.

At the extreme southern end of the district, the Constituent District 23 board has been preparing to fight back in the event that the district tries to shutter Edisto Island’s Jane Edwards Elementary ($20,400 per student), where the district eliminated the dwindling middle school program in 2013. Constituent board members there say they might seek to reopen Edwards as a charter school under the authority of the statewide S.C. Public Charter School District.

The plight of rural schools has also caught the attention of state Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, who introduced a bill earlier this month that would make it harder for the district to shut down schools with fewer than 750 students. House Bill 5195 would require county school board members to hold three hearings and prove that closing a school would result in a tax decrease for residents. The bill has not passed out of the Charleston delegation yet.

Joseph Bowers, who sits on the District 1 board, said he heard the complaints of parents Tuesday night but that he also understood why the district was looking to close Lincoln.

“I know some people in the community are planning to fight it, but if you sit down and look at the numbers, unless somebody knows a way we can get more students, it is what it is,” Bowers said.

Kate Darby, a county school board member whose East Cooper constituency includes Lincoln, said she would vote to close the school if the decision comes before the board. She said high school students currently attending Lincoln would have a lot more opportunities at Wando, from athletics to advanced and specialized courses.

“They’re just not getting the opportunities, and I think the parents and community in Awendaw and McClellanville want what’s best for their kids,” Darby said. “They want their kids to have a lot of options.”

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