Marching Band Students.jpg (copy)

Clarinetist Allissa Clark practices with the marching band at Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School as the two Bamberg County districts, Bamberg County District 1 and Denmark-Olar School District 2, discuss a merger that would combine district offices but not close schools. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It’s no coincidence that South Carolina’s six tiniest school districts rank among the seven districts with the highest administrative overhead per pupil.

Tiny districts can sometimes keep their classroom expenses under control, since they need a teacher for every 20 or 30 students, regardless of the total number of students. But every district also has to have a superintendent and a school board, regardless of the number of students, and most think they need their own lawyer and human resources manager and transportation director and other district-level employees.

With student populations in our smallest districts ranging from 613 to 749 — that’s per district, not per school — there aren’t a lot of students to drive down the per-pupil costs of those expensive employees.

That’s the simple math that makes it such good news that, after decades of painfully slow mergers, we could soon see the number of districts slashed from 79 to ... 75. OK, maybe not a giant leap for humankind, but it’s a matter of perspective: We’ve only managed to reduce the number to 79 this summer from 85 a decade ago ... and 91 two decades before that ... and 108 two decades before that.

But overhead savings isn’t the only reason to celebrate the progress. Merging tiny districts also allows the slightly larger districts to improve their course offerings, and hire the right sorts of specialists. And perhaps most importantly, it reduces the number of school board members and superintendents you need in poor, rural areas that have an increasingly difficult time attracting and keeping top-flight professionals as businesses move away and jobs dry up.

The Legislature never managed to pass a law this year requiring tiny districts to consolidate, even though the House and Senate passed separate bills to do that. But lawmakers did put a financial incentive program in this year’s state budget — districts in four poor counties with fewer than 1,500 students each can split up to $12.5 million to cover such costs as equalizing teacher pay and paying down construction debt — and it turns out that the money was as effective as a mandate. Two districts each in Bamberg, Barnwell, Hampton and Clarendon counties submitted paperwork by Thursday’s deadline to qualify for the funding.

The Education Department needs to do all it can to encourage the combining districts to make decisions that will actually reduce administrative overhead, which merged districts sometimes refuse to do. And then the agency and the Legislature need to get the slightly larger but still tiny districts in Bamberg, Barnwell and Clarendon counties on board. And then target the other slightly larger but still tiny districts in other counties. (It also would be great to see changes to the local law that combined school districts in Charleston County, to make it more difficult for constituent boards to block school zoning changes that could result in better utilization of school buildings and schools that are better integrated racially.)

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The difference a few million dollars made in the eight districts is a disturbing commentary on school board members and some legislators who represent them, who for decades have put up specious arguments to deflect consolidation efforts. But it’s also a valuable reminder to legislators that a carrot can sometimes work better than a stick — particularly if the carrot comes with a warning that the stick could be next.

We’re not sure the money should have been necessary, but since our state’s future prosperity is inseparable from our ability to provide a decent education to kids in the districts that are struggling most, such sums would be a small price to pay for the potential benefit of improving the leadership and freeing up money for districts to spend toward educating students rather than padding their payrolls and propping up the efforts of school board members to hold on to their power bases.

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