An inconvenient discussion

By: 

Anytime the subject of school consolidation is brought up, everyone in the room starts looking queasy.

It is an inconvenient discussion that keeps getting silenced until something happens.

The Barnwell County Council made the mistake of drafting a resolution voicing their support of consolidating the school districts. The actual wording of the draft stated, “The Barnwell County Council encourages the Barnwell County Public School Districts to consider working with our Legislative Delegation to determine a plan of action to have the three districts to consolidate into one district.”

The problem is that the county council has no authority over school consolidation. The South Carolina General Assembly does.

The other problem is that they didn’t let anyone know about the draft resolution until it appeared on the agenda for the July 11 meeting. Most school board members were totally unaware of it until they read it on The People-Sentinel’s Facebook page. This proves that South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act of requiring public notice of agendas really is truly valuable.

Blackville-Hilda School Board Chairman Carroll Priester rightly vented her angst at the council for not giving any of the school boards in the county a heads-up.

And the Barnwell County Council rightly decided to back out of the entire situation and leave the political grenade alone, tabling the resolution.

But that grenade is still there, waiting to be picked up again.

In August 2014 a committee was formed by Senator Brad Hutto to discuss the possibility of consolidating Barnwell County’s three schools. The nine members talked. They crunched numbers. They asked questions.

In 2015, a public forum was held where the question was asked of those attending if they wanted consolidation.

The resounding answer was “No”.

At that time, committee chairman Tim Moore said the committee found no direct correlation between consolidation and money because some consolidated districts spend more per student than others. He said consolidating Barnwell County’s district could save $1.2 million by eliminating duplicate positions, but would also cost $800,000 to equalize teacher pay.

Since that time all three of Barnwell County’s public school districts have worked together to find common ground and save money when services and opportunities can be shared. However, more collaboration could be done.

There are those who also have looked at other districts where consolidation has taken place to see the successes - and failures - of those districts as it relates to merging multiple districts.

Now the inconvenient discussion has arisen again.

The over-riding question is whether or not the state and/or lawmakers will, sometime down the road, force counties with multiple districts to consolidate. The other question is how do local residents take control of the destiny of our schools and guide them through local decision-making?

The answer is to keep the discussion going. It is inconvenient. It is politically charged. It is uncomfortable. And the answer may be “no” over and over again.

But it is necessary in a free society to make sure the voices of local residents are heard. It is important for some issues to be considered and analyzed periodically to determine if conditions have changed that would prompt a different course of action.

If the consensus is still “no”, then that is our decision.

It is also important that residents of Barnwell County be in control of the conversation and the destiny of its schools and school districts.

Inconvenient or not, let’s keep talking.