Wrong way to protect schools

Jane Edwards Elementary School on rural Edisto Island is among the district's smallest and most expensive schools per pupil.

The decision to close a school is difficult — and it should be. It should be made only if it is abundantly clear that students would benefit and that the financial bottom line would improve.

But the S.C. House members from Charleston County who are concerned about possible school closings and want to pass a law dictating that decision process for the Charleston County School District are misguided.

For one thing, enacting statewide legislation to serve a single local entity is always a dubious endeavor.

The CCSD is governed by a board elected by the people of Charleston County. Its job is to make informed decisions regarding the budget and policies, including whether and how to close a school.

Surely school board members who represent Charleston County are in a far better position to dictate procedures than lawmakers from the Upstate or Midlands.

Further, some details of the bill are unreasonable. It requires the board to prove that closing a school would result in a tax rate decrease for county residents.

Unfortunately, the school board is now making painful cuts in order to deal with an $18 million shortfall that has accrued over several years. Any savings produced by closing a small, high-cost school would likely be used to close that budget gap, not to reduce taxes.

Then when the gap is closed, the board will need to consider whether to reverse those cuts to improve education. For example, class sizes will grow slightly in 2016-2017. The board’s responsibility will be to analyze how that change has affected education and decide whether to maintain it or reverse it.

The bill also calls for three public hearings in the community affected if a school is shuttered, with a majority of school board members present at all of them.

Charleston County School Board members would be wise to assure the public that it will hold hearings and will hear what residents have to say.

But it shouldn’t take a state law for them to do so.

So far the school board has not proposed closing any school, but three committees of school principals have, as has Interim Chief Financial Officer Glenn Stiegman.

It could be a challenge to justify keeping a school open where academic performance is inadequate, a good alternative exists and costs are far more than the norm. However, there are cases when closing a school could pose too much of a hardship on students and diminish their educational opportunities.

The school board should welcome input on any school issue by House bill sponsors Robert L. Brown, Wendell Gilliard and Mary Tinkler.

But legislating rules in Columbia for the Charleston County School Board is not the answer.