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State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, seen here visiting a Summerville High engineering class in September 2015, advocates legislation requiring tiny districts with financial and academic problems to consolidate.  File

COLUMBIA — The once-taboo idea of forcing South Carolina's tiny school districts to consolidate is gaining support at the Statehouse. 

Legislators have long avoided the controversial issue, fearing a backlash from voters with deep, emotional ties to their local schools. Even after the state Supreme Court ordered legislators in 2014 to improve opportunities for poor, rural students and suggested consolidation as part of the solution, lawmakers continued to call it a decision for local leaders.

But a new push from Republican state schools chief Molly Spearman, a former educator, could provide motivation — and political cover — to make it happen faster. Senators will debate the topic later this month.

"We cannot leave this up to just local legislation," she told The Post and Courier. "We have got to do something immediately about this."

She recommends focusing on nine rural districts with red flags that include financial troubles, test scores consistently among the state's worst and already-small populations that have declined by up to 43 percent over the last decade. They simply aren't providing students what they need to succeed and can't afford the expertise to do so. Merging with a neighboring district can shrink administrative costs while expanding what's academically available for students, Spearman said.

Most on her still-developing list have under 1,500 students, such as Florence 4 (Timmonsville), with 630 students. It was in such dire straits, Spearman's agency took control of two of its three schools in 2016. But others are larger. Florence 3 (Lake City) has about 3,500 students.   

In the counties where consolidation is a must, she said, there's a wide disparity in the courses offered, such as whether Advanced Placement courses are available, and in how many subjects. 

"My job is to worry about opportunities for every student in the state," Spearman said. "I need school board folks to worry about opportunities within their county." 

Broader legislation forcing all districts with fewer than 2,500 students to merge with a neighbor inside their county will be considered March 28 by the entire Senate Education Committee. The bill, initially introduced in 2011, had died repeatedly without so much as a hearing. But a week after Spearman made her case to a Senate panel, it advanced without debate.  

Then the state's fiscal oversight office estimated the bill could cut costs by $127 million annually, shocking even its sponsor, Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken. 

"That’s real money the state would have available for other education needs," such as replacing dilapidated school buses and increasing teacher salaries, he said.

The state spends more than $3.7 billion on K-12 education.   

The bill applies to 18 districts. In several cases, it would force consolidation on a much larger neighbor. For example, Dorchester 4, which has 2,220 students in St. George, Ridgeville and Harleyville schools, would have to merge with Dorchester 2 (Summerville), the state's seventh-largest district with more than 26,000 students. That's because, despite what the districts' official names suggest, there's only two districts in the county. 

South Carolina's 82 districts range in size from 600 students in Barnwell 19 (Blackville-Hilda) to 76,000 in Greenville County. The odd numbering of districts that aren't countywide is a vestige of segregation, when hundreds of districts had fewer than 100 students. In the 1940s, there were 1,700 districts across the state's 46 counties. A wave of construction and consolidations brought it down to 107 by 1960. 

Decades later, the opposition is largely over community identity.

Dorchester 4 board member Kenneth Jenkins said his district strongly opposes merging into Dorchester 2, despite the prospect of more money from its wealthier tax base.

"It would hurt us more than help," said the former teacher and principal. "We feel like our identity and our representation would be lost. We're doing well with what we have. Let us remain where we are. Our students are getting what they really need."   

He also fears students being bused to the other side of the county. Both Spearman and Young say districts can be consolidated without closing schools.  

Dorchester 2 officials, meanwhile, prefer to be spectators.  

"Dorchester 4 has a culture they love and enjoy, and we know that," said Chairwoman Tanya Robinson. "We'd just like to be on the back burner and watch and cooperate." 

Spearman hopes the Senate committee amends Young's bill with her more focused approach that looks at more than population numbers.

The 2,500 threshold "pulls in districts really doing pretty well," she said, though she still encourages them to collaborate with neighbors on their own.

"The smaller you are, the harder the struggle," she said. "All districts need to be looking for more efficient ways to run their district office."

A bill that incorporates fewer districts could also mean less opposition, improving its chances. Her list doesn't include Dorchester 4.

Spearman cautions consolidation may bring no immediate savings, especially if legislators approve incentives she recommends for gathering community support, which could include paying down debt, paying to bring up teachers' salaries in districts that pay less than their neighbors, or funding construction. 

Some districts have consolidated through local pushes. 

Twenty years ago, Orangeburg County shrank from eight districts to three. It will become one district of about 13,000 students starting in July 2019. 

Longtime Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, sponsored both of those laws. The retired principal said there's no magic number for a school district size, but he does believe consolidation will lead to more opportunities and better student performance. For example, tiny districts can't afford to hire a full-time teacher for a class only a couple students want to take.  

A countywide district is long overdue, said Santee Mayor Donnie Hilliard. He remembers the county being split into 53 districts when he was growing up in Holly Hill. Now he leads the 18-member consolidation team created to ease the transition. 

It will "give kids on one end of the county at least an equal chance," he said. "The kids are benefiting, but the entire community will ultimately be the one to profit."  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.