COLUMBIA -- One of South Carolina's poorest counties would become a single school district under a bill approved Thursday by the House, two years after a former superintendent was arrested for embezzlement.

The House voted 84-0 to allow Marion County to finish combining its three school districts, then allowed for an automatic third reading Friday that sent the bill to the Senate.

School district consolidation is often talked about in the Legislature, and former Gov. Mark Sanford touted bills forcing small districts to combine, but lawmakers are generally unwilling to push the idea and risk a backlash from voters.

Last year, however, brought mergers in rural Dillon and Sumter counties. The Marion County bill would further reduce the number of districts to 81 in the state's 46 counties, as of July 1. That's down from 91 districts two decades ago.

Rep. Jim Battle stressed that his county school board voted unanimously to seek the legislation, and it is strictly a county issue.

"It's the last step in creating a single district," Battle, D-Nichols, said after the vote. "We think it's a better way to operate. Teachers and schools will see no difference."

Money problems forced Marion County's two smallest districts to consolidate years ago. Marion County's three remaining school districts still include the smallest in the state, with fewer than 650 students. Even combined, the three would have fewer than 5,100 students total.

The districts are in the process of combining administrations. Their first countywide superintendent, Dan Strickland, officially took the helm last July.

"It's a win-win situation," said Strickland, a Mullins native who was an associate superintendent in nearby Columbus County, N.C. "We think, working together as one district, we can provide greater services, and it's a cost savings overall."

He could not immediately provide an estimate.

Legislation was needed to combine the districts' financial operations, Battle said, finishing a process initiated after former Marion 2 Superintendent Nathaniel Miller was arrested in January 2010 on dozens of counts including conspiracy and forgery.