BAMBERG — After decades of resistance, South Carolina's tiniest school districts are making plans to merge, driven by incentive money dangled by the state and worries that legislators could force them to consolidate later without the additional cash.
None are combining or closing schools. The idea is to reduce the overhead costs of school districts with fewer students than James Island Charter High in Charleston or A.C. Flora High in Columbia to funnel those dollars toward classrooms and expanding students' course and extracurricular offerings.
"That's what I hope," long-time Bamberg schools Superintendent Phyllis Schwarting said Thursday as middle and high school students in the Bamberg-Ehrhardt marching band practiced outside her building.
She insists consolidating with neighboring Denmark schools will not save money. "We squeeze the blood out of a dollar, but it's not always enough."
The likelihood of state-mandated consolidations once seemed laughable as fears of a voter backlash back home prevented legislators from even discussing it.
But a combination of shrinking rural populations, a state education agency willing to take over failing districts and legislators' pledge to overhaul South Carolina's ailing public school system has made the once-improbable appear unavoidable — at least, in the state's smallest, poorest districts.
"You should see the handwriting on the wall," state Sen. Brad Hutto, who represents many of them, said he's telling his constituents. "Tailor your own process. Take control of your own destiny instead of a template coming out of Columbia. This is an opportunity.
"Let us know what you need to make this happen."
School districts with less than 1,500 students in four counties are eligible for part of $12.5 million set aside to cover expenses long used as arguments against consolidation. Costs include equalizing teacher salaries and paying down construction debt.
The districts also qualify for a share of $37.5 million designated to help poor districts pay for new construction or renovations. High schools and career centers shared by consolidating districts get first dibs on that money.
At least six school districts in Bamberg, Barnwell, Clarendon and Hampton counties are seriously considering a merger.
But they must move quickly. The state budget, passed in late May, set an Aug. 1 deadline for preliminary consolidation plans.
How the pot will be split depends on the proposals, which must be approved by the state Department of Education.
"Of course, we’ll submit a plan to get money," Ferlecia Cuthbertson, vice board chairwoman of Williston's schools, said Monday after a joint, closed-door meeting with Blackville's school board. "We just want to make sure we're covering our bases. We're trying to be as thorough as possible in a small window."
Board members of those two Barnwell County school districts — which combined have fewer than 1,500 students — voted unanimously Tuesday night to proceed with a merger.
They'll do so without the county's third, most-populous district. Barnwell chose not to participate, as its 2,200 students put it above the size targeted by the state for consolidation.
Decades-old concerns over losing a community's identity and sports pride continue to fuel objections to consolidation, even though state officials aren't asking for plans that shut down schools or give up mascots. They stress the goal is to merge district-level services — such as maintenance, accounting, and purchasing — and share teachers for classes or activities the districts separately can't afford. But fears persist.
"We’re very content with where we’re at," Barnwell board Chairman Rhett Richardson said. "Our constituents prefer to remain Barnwell High School. We want to be Barnwell Warhorses."
Blackville district technology director Daphne Wood supports consolidation, despite knowing her job would be among those "up for grabs."
"We used to offer a variety of courses, but we’ve slowly declined. We've gotten down to the nuts and bolts," said Wood, a 33-year veteran of a district that's shrunk by 30 percent over the past decade to become the state's smallest at 600 students. "We’re hurting in art and music. There are extracurricular activities we just don’t have. Everybody has to wear multiple, multiple hats. ... It's heartbreaking."
"It's for the students," she said about the merger. "That's the bottom line."
Which districts are merging?
Rural districts' small-and-declining populations help explain why they tend to spend much more on central administration per student than the state average.
Blackville ranks second-highest in the state in administrative costs when divided by the number of students. Estill schools in Hampton County, which has 690 students, rank first.
Both districts spend roughly 3 1/2 times the state average, according to data released in May by state fiscal experts tasked with developing a new way to fund state schools.
"As the student population has dwindled, the structure of the district office has remained constant, so there’s an adverse cost there," said Latoya Dixon, director of the state education agency's Office of School Transformation, which is managing three districts taken over since 2017 and providing targeted help to 117 other schools rated in the bottom 10 percent statewide.
It's unclear if Hampton County's two districts plan to merge.
But, as in Barnwell, Estill's neighboring district, the county seat of Hampton, educates more than 1,500 students, the trigger for consolidation.
Two of Clarendon County's three districts, Summerton and Turbeville, plan to merge. But like Barnwell County, the Clarendon schools are merging without the county's most populous district, which covers the county seat of Manning. The extra difficulty for them is that Summerton and Turbeville are on opposite ends of the county, with Manning in the middle.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said that shows why setting an arbitrary number of students for consolidation was the wrong approach.
"The argument is an easier sell (in the Legislature) when you say, 'It's only the small, rural districts affected,'" said the Orangeburg Democrat, one of few legislators from a county with multiple districts who has advocated for countywide districts. "I see that as a compromise South Carolina can't continue to afford."
Cobb-Hunter backed a law that consolidated just Orangeburg County. Its three districts officially became one July 1.
Opponents of consolidation point to Orangeburg County as proof it's not a money saver. The new district's budget is $5 million more than the three former districts' combined budgets. Orangeburg school officials, contacted Tuesday, did not return answers to The Post and Courier's questions about district spending by Friday.
Cobb-Hunter agreed Orangeburg County is not a model for consolidation.
"The administrative costs are still too high. The board did not make the cuts that should’ve and could’ve been made" at the district level, she said. "So my advice to districts considering consolidation is to figure out how to make those tough decisions."
Legislators' first move toward broad consolidation came last year, when they gave state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman authority to require the state's 13 smallest districts to share services. Steps some have taken so far include sharing cafeteria and technology directors and centralizing adult education.
The directive's "gotten them working together," Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown said. "I don’t think without that they’d be at the point they’re at with consolidation."
Critics contend the state incentive money won't be nearly enough, no matter how it's doled out. And they don't trust that legislators will find more in future budget years.
In Bamberg County, officials worry merging its two districts' debt will keep property taxes high for decades without a significant infusion from the state.
A $38 million building that brings all three of Denmark's schools under one roof is set to open in August 2020, replacing schools up to 66 years old.
"Our schools were in such dire conditions, we needed a school. Our children need to have a place. They deserve that," said Denmark Superintendent Thelma Sojourner.
Bamberg, which completed its $29 million building and renovation program several years ago, was scheduled to pay off its debt in 2038. Spreading out the combined debt could mean residents across one of the state's poorest counties will be funding schools through 2058 instead, Schwarting said.
"Our share of $12.5 million won't touch that," she said. "The Legislature will have to step up to the plate."
The state's complicated K-12 funding formulas, which date to 1977, intentionally excluded the cost of maintaining or building schools, leaving local property taxes to pick up the entire tab.
"The only reason we’re in this predicament is because the state has utterly failed our entire area," said Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat from Bamberg. "Consolidation should have happened years ago. ... Now is the chance for this county to collectively say we agree to move forward."