The case for closing Lincoln

Students head to the vocational building changing classes at Lincoln Middle-High School on Tuesday, February 3, 2015. Wade Spees/Staff

Lincoln Middle-High School in McClellanville has two big problems: The per-pupil cost is $23,900, and test scores are low.

Even so, many families — some with several generations of Lincoln students — don’t like the idea that it might be closed.

McClellanville is a small community that feels like a family. Lincoln is an important extension of that family.

But it appears that the Charleston County School Board is going to be asked to close the school — one of a number of painful changes being considered to make up for an $18 million budget shortfall.

If not for its poor academic standings and the limited courses offered there, it would be easier to oppose the school’s closing. Charleston County is 100 miles long, including urban, suburban and rural areas. Meeting the needs of rural students is part of CCSD’s responsibility.

And some students excel in small schools more than they would in large schools.

But even as the school’s graduation rate increased by 17.4 percentage points last year to exceed the state average, its scores on standardized tests of academic achievement remain unacceptably low.

And even as students across the district are increasingly attracted to academic programs that prepare them to go directly into careers or to earn college credits, the small population (fewer than 90 in the high school) makes it impossible for those options to be offered at Lincoln.

If the school were to be closed, middle school students would go to St. James-Santee not far away in Awendaw. High schoolers would go to Wando, one of the state’s best high schools, which offers extensive career-ready and college-ready academic programs.

So Lincoln’s students would stand to benefit academically, and in a major way. Indeed more than 40 students who are zoned to attend Lincoln requested permission to instead attend Wando and are enrolled there.

Members of the Charleston Legislative Delegation have unwisely proposed a law to restrain attempts to close rural schools in Charleston County. Local schools should not be governed in Columbia.

But some of the ideas are worth CCSD’s attention. One is that the board would meet with the community to discuss the closing. Gerrita Postlewait, school superintendent, did that last week, but it makes sense for the board to hear from people in person.

Also, the bill would require the district to demonstrate that closing a school would reduce taxes, something that likely won’t happen, given the district’s staggering debt. But the district could, and should, explain how much the district would save after factoring in additional costs for transportation and for teaching students at Wando and St. James-Santee.

It is also important that the McClellanville community be fully informed about how Lincoln students would be assimilated. Wando, for example, is already crowded with classes held in trailers.

But the district is preparing to award a design contract for a new high school on the campus formerly occupied by the old Wando school. Demolition of the old school should begin in May and construction on the new building should start in August. It is expected to be ready in August 2020, if not earlier.

Further, CCSD staff is even now looking for a parcel of land that could be purchased as a home for a third East Cooper high school.

Closing a school should never be an easy decision. But moving Lincoln students to St. James-Santee and Wando would not be better just for the budget, it would be academically better for the students.