The Charleston County School District could close two of its public schools by 2020, but it's unclear which ones.
The district is eyeing the closings to save an estimated $1.1 million per year and serve some students better by moving them into larger schools.
When the school board's Audit and Finance Committee met Tuesday, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer Donald Kennedy gave budget projections for the fiscal years ending in 2021 and 2022 that included cost savings related to the closure of two "smaller schools."
"Our calculation says that we would save roughly $1.1 million," he said. "That’s closing two hypothetical schools and consolidating those students in existing schools."
The Charleston County School Board would have to vote on any closures. During its Nov. 26 meeting, five of the nine board members approved a set of 2018-20 goals that included determining "optimal school size for delivery of high-quality curriculum."
Board members Kevin Hollinshead, Todd Garrett, the Rev. Chris Collins and Priscilla Jeffery were absent during the vote.
The vote wasn't the first hint of possible school closures to come. When Clemson University researchers presented a six-month diversity study to the school board in August, it included the following recommendation:
"Close or repurpose schools that consistently fail to serve their students based on agreed-upon measures."
Garrett, chairman of the board's Audit and Finance Committee, said he would support closing small schools and merging the students into larger schools. He said part of his goal would be to integrate schools after decades of de facto segregation, following another recommendation from the $135,000 diversity study.
He said he would like to provide better academic and extracurricular opportunities for students at smaller schools.
"My goal would be getting to a size where you could afford to get a Spanish teacher or music program or arts program, and ideally sports, and then do it with a mind to combining facilities where you can achieve integration," Garrett said.
Any decision to close a school likely will create controversy. Collins said Wednesday he would oppose any effort to close a school, particularly a majority-black school.
"It sounds like we don’t plan to fix the problems at these schools, and we’re simply going to close the school out to get it out of the way and get it off of our data sheets," he said. "That’s the wrong perspective, to focus that way."
In the past, school closures were based on poor academic performance, high per-pupil costs, or both. Schools with fewer students often have higher overhead costs related to administration and facilities.
During its 2016 budget crisis, the board voted 6-3 to close Lincoln Middle-High in McClellanville, a school of just 156 students that had posted rock-bottom test scores for years and cost the district $23,879 per pupil.
Another small, expensive school, Jane Edwards Elementary on Edisto Island, was spared closure in 2016 because of its relatively good academic performance and the logistical difficulty of busing children to another school off the remote island — the closest elementary school is located 13 miles away in Hollywood.
The decision to close the historically black Lincoln Middle-High prompted all three of the board's black board members to walk out of a meeting in protest, including the Rev. Eric Mack, who was elected chairman of the board last month.
"At this time, there is no school on the table for discussions of closure," Mack said Wednesday. "I would support, as I have in the past, any initiatives that would ensure our students are able to achieve the maximum academic success to complete in our global workforce that would prepare them to be college career ready."
The district lists some of its lowest per-pupil expenses at large Mount Pleasant schools, although figures provided by the district do not always reflect the full extent of money at schools' disposal. Schools in wealthier areas tend to have active PTAs and booster clubs, whose fundraising doesn't appear in the district's financial statements.
As in 2016, the idea of closing schools did not originate with a School Board vote. The 2016 closure discussions were prompted by a recommendation from newly formed Elementary, Middle and High School Allocations Committees, whose members the district office refused to disclose.