School Districts Consolidation: The Effort Will Continue This January
Consolidation can be done, but it can never be “undone”: O’Shields
A related commentary appears on OPINION this website. Also see, “Hands Off Our Schools,” under opinions, this website
The bills are stalled, but the fight goes on.
District 56 is asking its parents and supporters to be continually mindful of a state lawmaker’s desire to see Districts 56 and 55 combined into the Laurens County Consolidated School District. Legislation to do that will be back in the state’s General Assembly in January; there will be no vote in Laurens County about consolidation.
H 5317 and 5318 have passed the State House, but stalled in the State Senate. The deadline to pass bills in this term of the state legislature has passed.
The Laurens County Delegation has decided not to go forward with two bills - H 5318 and 5317 - that will change the way Districts 56 and 55 operate. H 5317 puts school finance approvals in the hands of the Laurens County Council. H 5318 consolidates the districts effective in 2021. Both bills will be reintroduced in January, 2019.
If consolidation passes the General Assembly, a 7-member board will run the Laurens County Consolidated School District. See a map (attached PDF) for the districts that 6 of these board members will be from. A 7th board member will be elected at-large. The board chooses the chairman.
District 56 is concerned that - just like the current Laurens County Council - just 2 of the 7 seats represent Clinton. This makes it difficult to develop a coalition to represent the interests of Clinton and the Clinton community schools, school district consolidation opponents say.
District 56 also is cautioning community members that “surveys” claiming cost savings for a consolidated school district are not backed up by facts.
A D56 Board of Trustees statement said, “Even though the consolidation effort was ‘saved by the bell,’ stalling due to time constraints in the Senate - there is already a renewed effort to pursue it. We believe any study committee or similar effort will be extremely challenging because of the complexity and subjective nature of continuing to operate a first class school district.
“We believe that it is not in the best interests of the stakeholders of D56 to be absorbed into a county-wide system, but we will be forced to defend that position.
“You should be aware that there are already communications disguised as surveys distributing unsubstantiated information.
“Our focus will be to continue to provide a high quality educational experience for our students. Please stay involved.”
In putting school district consolidation on hold, the Laurens County Legislative Delegation said, “State Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens, delegation chairman) issued this statement: After careful consideration and hearing from our constituents, the need for more information and a better understanding, it is the unified consensus of the Laurens County Legislative Delegation to hold the process on the Consolidation Bill at this point. At least three open forums will be held in Laurens County by the Delegation, led by Delegation Chairman Mike Pitts and meetings with both school boards and school administrators will take place after adjournment of the current legislative session and January 2019. No further action will be taken on this issue in any form until that point."
In an interview with The Chronicle, Pitts said the first people he heard from about consolidation were the people he expected to protest - the people who will lose their jobs. After the “emotional people” expressed themselves, Pitts said he heard from others who, in theory, are in support of school district consolidation. No schools will be ordered closed by the delegation as a result of consolidation, he said.
It will save money, said Pitts, adding that if there is a study committee, he already knows what the panel’s recommendation will be - to favor consolidation.
District 56 Superintendent Dr. David O’Shields said the first flawed argument is district consolidation will save money. District 55 pays more, so what will happen to salaries? Will they rise to the D55 level? Or drop to the D56 level? Or go somewhere in between?
“The $150,000 savings of having one superintendent will be eaten up pretty quickly,” O’Shields said. The consolidation bill says there can be only one assistant superintendent for the new district (duties assigned by the new board), but O’Shields said that position could be expensive to fill. Once the savings in salaries doesn’t come up to expectations, there’s just one more place to save money, and that’s closing schools.
“And those six right there, they are my babies,” O’Shields said of the six framed pictures on his office wall, the six school buildings of District 56.
“In 10 years, I am going to be offering this position (D56 superintendent),” O’Shield said, “but I’m not ready to go yet.”
Between now and January, he said, people in both districts are going to hear a lot about saving money. “We as a community need to be mindful. This is coming from when we lost our House seat for Clinton. It is no fault of Mark Willis or Mike Anthony, they have been incredibly good to us and attuned to our concerns,” O’Shields said.
But, right now, there is no one in the SC General Assembly who owes his/her job to Clinton-Joanna. “We have to be mindful of what will be some misconceptions. School district consolidation must be fair. It is historically sold as it saves money - but in what way?”
There are “so many other concerns,” O’Shields said. While D56 and D55 are alike, there are difference in academics and technology, and all those platforms would have to be meshed. “We need to listen,” O’Shields said, “and be mindful of the process.”
O’Shields said he has talked to State Superintendent Molly Spearman, and D56 and D55 are not on her list of concerns. “We should consider merging services,” he said. “We would support that where possible.
“America, as a whole, is built on the idea of local control. We, as Americans, are skeptical of over-extension by the federal or state governments. This (consolidation bill) is state intrusion into a system that works well, by the State Superintendent’s own admission.”
District 56, right now, is bond-rated as “low risk,” and O’Shields said it is important for Clinton schools for that to stay that way. Laurens has a large district, O’Shields said, and Clinton doesn’t want to be a “satellite system.”
Instead, he said, “We want to complement Laurens.”
O’Shields said, “This is a matter of representation, one of our most fundamental rights. We know they (state lawmakers) have the power to do this. We are mindful that it can be done.
“But, in this case, it cannot be undone.”