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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Sumter can teach the rest of us about schools
Posted on Mon, Jan. 28, 2008
Associate Editor

AND THEN there were 84.
As one of its first actions in the new year, the Legislature agreed to merge Sumter County’s two school districts.
It marks only the third time in 11 years and apparently just the fourth time in the last half-century that the Legislature has agreed to consolidate school districts.

At this rate, we could be down to one district per county by, oh, about 2080.
There are many reasons our small state needs to whittle down the number of school districts. For Sen. Phil Leventis, it’s a matter of preparing the schools, and his community, for a new economy.

“We’ve just got to think out of the box and move ahead, and I think that in years to come the district will be better equipped to spend whatever money they’ve got more effectively and efficiently consolidated,” he told me the day the House approved his bill. “There’s no magic in consolidation, but we do think that the opportunities are unlimited, especially vis-a-vis the old 1950s thinking of how the school districts should be aligned.”

District 2 is a doughnut; District 17 is the hole, centered in downtown Sumter. They were what remained when the county’s 25 districts were collapsed into two in 1951. Pressure points have emerged as growth occurred along the district lines, splitting subdivisions, and sometimes houses, in half.

Rep. David Weeks told me of people upset because their kids couldn’t go to school with their next-door neighbors, or had to go to a school 20 miles away while the ones down the street attended a neighborhood school. Although poverty and racial concentrations are nearly identical in the two districts, there remains what he calls “an us-and-them mentality.”

“You have this idea of the city folk downtown getting the good stuff and the county folk getting the not-so-good stuff,” Rep. Weeks said. “That has been the notion that has prevailed over the years.”

Sen. Leventis filed his bill after he convinced top administrators from the two districts to realign the boundaries to reunite neighborhoods and the school boards dismissed the plan, even refusing to comply with a law the Legislature passed last spring to implement the changes.

Consolidation has been opposed by the usual suspects: school board members and senior administrators. The local NAACP also came out against it although Rep. Weeks, a longtime member, points out that only 14 people showed up for an anti-merger meeting to which 300 were invited. The night before the Legislature convened, a Sumter County Council member tried to push through a resolution to oppose it; he lost 3-4.

It’s hard to pin down concrete reasons why anyone without a job at stake opposes the merger. Mostly, critics call for more study. But legislators have studied the issue. They looked at Aiken County, a county with similar size and demographics but one school district. There, according to state calculations, 63 percent of the district’s money goes into classroom instruction. It’s 59 percent in Sumter 17 and 54 percent in Sumter 2.

“If the combined district can get the total spending on classroom instruction up to a level of 60 percent, there’ll be three to four to five million more dollars going to classrooms in Sumter,” Sen. Leventis said. “And that’s symbolic of the things we think they can achieve. Two has some outstanding programs seventeen doesn’t; seventeen has some outstanding programs that two doesn’t. We don’t think children in the county should be barred from those programs based on arbitrary lines.”

From a financial standpoint, consolidating small districts not just in Sumter, but across the state is a no-brainer. If two districts with 9,000 students each can save $3 million a year by cutting out central-office duplication, imagine how much could be saved by consolidating some of the 23 districts that have fewer than 2,500 students each. Check that. You don’t have to imagine. Harry Miley, a respected economist, put the figure at $26 million when he did a study for the state in 2003.

Yet you see how rare the efforts are to consolidate individual districts. And the perennial push by Rep. Ken Kennedy to pass a one-district-per-county bill has generated no enthusiasm, even with rhetorical support from Gov. Mark Sanford and House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

A big reason is that the factors in Sumter County are very much at play in other counties that insist on maintaining separate and often unequal school districts: The lines reflect deep economic, social and often racial divisions within communities. Change is fiercely opposed by school officials, who often have as large a political power base as legislators. In addition, residents of small communities often see consolidation as a threat to their local schools, which are the only thing holding their communities together.

Education Superintendent Jim Rex is trying a different approach, urging the Legislature to approve incentives for districts to consolidate, or at least to merge administrative functions. That has the best chance of passing the Legislature, and it’s one reason Sen. Leventis sees the Sumter merger as part of “a slow but inexorable trend.”

“I believe that in ten years, people will recognize this as a sea change in thinking of education in Sumter County,” he said, “and it will have happened in more places around the state, and we’ll all be delighted that we moved into the 21st century.”

And not a moment too soon.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571.

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