Tiny school districts always say merging with their neighbors won’t save any money. Of course, as we’ve explained before, saving money isn’t the main purpose. The main purpose is creating a larger student population, so districts can provide higher-level courses and extra programs like suburban districts offer. And reducing the number of superintendents and other top professionals you have to lure to rural communities, where they generally don’t want to live. And reducing the number of capable school board members you have to find.
But it’s true that consolidation doesn’t always save money. Sometimes, that’s because districts make sure it doesn’t.
This year, the Legislature essentially said to the state’s eight smallest districts: “If you consolidate with your neighbors, we’ll help cover transition costs. And if you don’t, well, you might not like what happens.” So two by two, tiny districts in Bamberg, Barnwell, Hampton and Clarendon counties put together plans to consolidate.
Even to those who know how school districts usually respond to consolidation demands, and who are really jaded, the preliminary requests were shocking.
Eight of South Carolina's tiniest school districts are collectively seeking more than $210 million to consolidate — four times more than what legislators allotted as a carrot for small school districts in the poorest counties to merge on their own before they are forced by the state.
As The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox discovered when she reviewed the consolidation proposals, two districts said they wanted $8.5 million to build a new administration building, even though administrators admit current buildings are just fine.
They also wanted $450,000 to give severance pay to redundant administrators — or hire them right back as consultants. Seriously.
Other districts said they’d need millions of dollars to build new schools and purchase signs and athletic uniforms. Combined, the eight asked for $2.1 million just to pay consultants and attorneys to help with the consolidations — which the state Education Department almost certainly would help them with at absolutely no charge. All told, the districts asked for $210 million — from a pot of $37.5 million available.
The good news is that those proposals were part of the districts’ notification of intent to merge and technically not funding requests. The S.C. Education Department used the information to measure what a spokesman called “perceived need” so it could design the actual application forms. They were sent to the districts last Friday and are due Sept. 30.
Although the application forms are nearly identical to the intent forms, they come with instructions reminding districts that the state won’t fund administration buildings or sports facilities and that the state is especially interested in funding shared high school and career and technology education facilities.
It’s no coincidence that South Carolina’s six tiniest school districts rank among the seven districts with the highest administrative overhead per pupil.
We hope those messages will persuade district officials to focus on their actual needs rather than trying to run up the costs with wish-list requests.
If not, we trust that S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman and the state Board of Education will reject any unreasonable requests and allocate the funding to pay for actual needs, rather than trying to distribute the money equally.
We absolutely need to consolidate the tiny districts, but we don’t need to help any that are determined to prove that consolidations can be as expensive as they want them to be.