Would consolidation help struggling school districts?

Photo Credit: NewsChannel 15's Tonya Brown

In the Pee Dee, many counties have multiple school districts. There are five separate districts in Florence County alone.

Last week we reported that the Timmonsville School Board, Florence School District 4, is expected to meet this week to finalize job cuts.

During an emergency meeting last week, the district's finance director told the board it's coming up thousands of dollars short every month.

The district has operated in the red for at least a year and needs to find a way to save $1.3 million.

Some board members met with the Florence County Legislative Delegation last week asking for help. They were told the state has no money and it's their jobs as board members to balance the budget.

The debate over consolidating a county's school districts into one seems to fuel up every year or so. Recently, in Marion County, three school districts merged their administrative services, saving nearly half a million dollars.

We asked State Representative Phillip Lowe, Florence County, if merging the five Florence school districts into one would work. "Florence probably fits better with just three districts than one, but you can study anything to see how it can work out."

Representative Lowe says consolidating the districts could work - if people in the districts buy into the idea. He believes consolidating administrative services could save thousands and help the smaller districts. "If we went to to the administrative level and still allow them to have their own school district, own board members so they could take care of the local people and the local problems."

Lowe said having one county-wide superintendent, instead of 5, in Florence County could save at least $500,000. He added that the savings isn't huge across five districts, but it's still money that could be directed back into the classroom.

Lake City is Florence School District 3. The school superintendent there is Beth Wright. She said consolidation may work in some instances by helping struggling districts, but there is a downside. "When you have a district of 25, 25, 40,000 it's hard. You kind of lose that identity of the child and the child does just become a number."

And when it comes to numbers, Wright said, the five school districts in Florence County are already working together when it comes to the bottom line. "We've opened avenues to save money because across the five districts there are many things that we do jointly purchases throughout our 5 districts. We do that a lot in business purchases and food purchases." She said the districts have also merged some academic programs.

Representative Lowe says it will take many studies to see if consolidation will work and if it's in the best interest of the students. So far there are none planned.

A 2003 study commissioned by the SC Education Oversight Committee found that if it were possible to combine some state school districts, so that none had fewer than 2,500 students, it could save the state $26 million.

There are currently 85 school districts in South Carolina in 46 counties.

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