Justify small CCSD schools

Lincoln High School, with 156 students, is in rural McClellanville.

The Charleston County School District is looking for ways to erase an $18 million deficit. One troublesome expense on the table is that of the smallest schools with the biggest price tags.

There isn’t an easy answer, as has been evidenced in prior years when the district thought about closing schools, and communities rose up in opposition.

But the financial situation is different now. The board already has voted to eliminate 117 teaching positions in the fall, and Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait has said the district will eliminate 80 to 100 positions at the district office.

Still, questions about these schools must be answered, and decisions — some of them tough — must be made in the best interest of all students.

A one-size-fits-all response isn’t the right one in a district where the median per-pupil cost is $8,900 but five schools cost at least twice that.

Lincoln High School, with 156 students, is the district’s second most expensive school — and its most expensive community school — at a per-person cost of $23,878. That’s largely because the population in McClellanville and the surrounding rural area is sparse.

Next is Jane Edwards, a tiny school on rural Edisto Island with 84 students and costs of $20,422 per child.

Both schools have long histories and close community ties. But Lincoln and Jane Edwards have one key difference. If Lincoln were to close, its students would go to Wando High School, one of the most successful in the state. If Jane Edwards were to close, students would go to Minnie Hughes Elementary 13 miles away in Hollywood, which struggles academically.

Before even considering closing Jane Edwards, the school district would need to determine conclusively whether its students would get an education at Minnie Hughes that is as good or better than what they get now.

If the answer is no, educators need to find a way to keep Jane Edwards open — while they’re improving Minnie Hughes.

Burke High School, with 405 students, is right behind Jane Edwards. Its per-student cost is $19,123.

But it is unlike either Lincoln or Jane Edwards in that it is an urban school in a heavily populated district. It should be preserved, even if it costs more than is being spent elsewhere.

But educators also need to make changes at Burke so that more students will choose to attend. Burke has a fine campus and a stellar history, but its students overall perform poorly on standardized tests, which leads some parents to send their children elsewhere.

Two of the most expensive schools — Liberty Hill Academy ($50,844 per student) and Pattison’s Academy ($23,422) — serve special-needs students countywide. Their costs are elevated because they require more staff and more transportation.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive scrutiny also. They should be able to justify their expenses.

Of course, a fiscally adroit district would be assessing school costs even without a deficit. Its job is to educate all students in an efficient and cost-effective way. Year after year, doing so requires cutting every dollar that is reasonably expendable — and some that aren’t. Anything is fair game.

The new call to close small schools came not from the board but from the recently formed Elementary, Middle and High School Allocations Committees, which include school principals and numerous district-level employees.

Indeed, board member Michael Miller said he would oppose closing any school “because of low enrollment.”

Nevertheless, low enrollment is one factor among many that must be considered for the district’s well-being. Others include achievement, mission and alternatives.

The Charleston County School District is facing some unwanted cuts in teachers and central staff next year because of an unexpected deficit. As unappetizing as the prospect is, it should also be looking for other soft spots — even individual schools.