Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Brooks to state: Stop posturing, do what's best for children

A note published by the Florence Morning News on Sunday discussed the issue of school consolidation, but it contained a nugget of wisdom voiced almost in frustration by Florence 1 Superintendent Allie Brooks.

Brooks told the Morning News that "consolidating districts to save money should be studied before action is taken because variables change from community to community."

“We have to be concerned about the quality of what we’re doing,” Brooks said. “We might save money in one area, administratively, particularly, but you might be a penny wise and a dollar foolish.”

So true. But Brooks offered his interviewer the most appropriate frame for this discussion, if this or any other questioner wants to take it:

Brooks said, in the end, it’s up to the state to fulfill its responsibility to educate its children. While the legislature appropriated some additional money to education near the end of this year’s budget deliberations, state allocations are down and don’t match the recommended levels produced by the funding formula in the 1977 Education Finance Act.

“If we’re going to support public education, then we’ve got to put the money where our mouths are,” Brooks said. “We’re going to have to stop all the posturing and look at the community and do what’s best for every child.”

That's precisely what has never happened on a consistent basis -- ever in the 34-year history of the Education Finance Act, ever in the 200-year history of South Carolina's pledge to provide for public education (dating to the Free Schools Act of 1811), ever in the 341-year history of the state.

It always comes back to money. Priorities cost money, and lawmakers don't want to spend it. This is how we devolve into conversations about school consolidation, like this one:

School consolidation is an old and familiar issue in South Carolina, where districts have traditionally been built around communities and the idea of a county with a dozen or more separate school districts was for years considered neither unusual nor untoward.

But the number of public school districts in the state is falling — the total is now less than two per county — and recessionary pressure on budgets has given districts still more reason to consider it. This is especially true in the impoverished Pee Dee, where during the past two years districts in Dillon, Marion and Sumter counties have all consolidated, and where a debate is raging over the fate of Florence School District 4. The Timmonsville-based district is on the verge of bankruptcy and many officials, both in and out of the district, see its only real salvation coming from a merger with a larger district, most likely the adjacent Florence School District 1.

While there is more to consolidation than just saving money, and more to saving money than just administrative costs, one clear advantage to combining small districts is the savings produced by elimination of the highest administrative jobs. Where multiple, small districts remain in place, administrators continue to get paid for duplicate positions in the same county to serve their districts despite the cost to taxpayers.

A Morning News study of district salaries showcases the problem. (See our database at While top administrators in larger districts do get paid more than the superintendents and other top brass in small ones, the small districts’ salaries are still significant; most are six figures or more.

An example of the problem can be seen in a comparison of Florence and Horry counties. The superintendents of the five Florence County school districts make more than $500,000 combined in a year, but Cynthia Elsberry, Horry County’s only school district superintendent, makes $205,000 per year. Yet, Elsberry oversees nearly twice as many children as her Florence counterparts combined. There’s no call for combining all of Florence’s districts into one, but such a move would clearly save money.

And the superintendent’s job is not only service that’s duplicated. A 2009 study by Clemson University found that the cost per pupil for administration is generally higher in small districts than in larger ones. But, as noted, there’s more to consolidation than just dollars and cents.
Maybe, but Dr. Steve Quick, the recently appointed interim superintendent for Florence 4, said consolidation can do more than save money. Quick should know. He worked in Marlboro County when that county combined districts and served as a consultant to Marion County when it was pondering its recent merger.

Florence 4 has had its share of financial troubles of late. The district is working through a negative general fund balance of $1,464,702 for its school district which has somewhere between 700 and 800 students (acutal numbers fluctuate dramatically).

Quick said consolidation can provide better education and services to its students. Larger districts can offer a wider variety of coures and resources for its students. And, as a veteran of several consolidations, he knows it can be done.

“It’s not that it can’t happen,” he said. “It’s, does the community, and do the administrators and does the legislative delegation have the will to do it?”

Brooks said consolidating districts to save money is a decision that must consider community ties.

“You take any school district in this state or in this nation where schools have been established for a historical period of time: the loss of that identity isn’t something you’re going to forget,” Brooks said.

Dillon School District 2 Superintendent Ray Rogers said identity is important. He said all wasn’t lost when the Dillon County Board of Education recently worked to merge his Dillon-based district with Lake View-based Dillon 2, reducing the number of Dillon County school districts from three to two (Dillon 3 is based in Latta).

“The key thing is, everybody down there had to decide that there had to be an alternative to what was going on,” Rogers said. “When you have a problem, you’ve got to address the problem.”

That has been what’s driven consolidation of late in this the Pee Dee. Districts faced with some dilemma — most often financial — turned to consolidation only when everything else had been tried or considered.

Quick said there’s another option to consolidating districts: consolidating services, programs and funding could help pull troubled districts out of hard times, but it could come with drawbacks.

“Usually the big issue is everybody thinks consolidation means someone’s going to lose a job, and in the economic situation we’re in right now, no one wants to lose a job,” he said.

Today, the Morning News editors issued an editorial in favor of consolidation as a "good and necessary thing."

A long, slow march towards fewer districts is underway. Up to the end of the 19th century, South Carolina had 1,700 public districts, limited by state law to seven square miles, presumably because of transportation concerns. By the 1950s, and with the advent of the school bus, the number of districts had been reduced to 120. Today there are between 82-85 districts in the state (the range is due to problems counting districts in transition, such as those in Marion, Dillon and Sumter counties), and a trend towards lower numbers still is clearly underway. If and when the three Pee Dee counties mentioned above complete their transition to single-district entities, 32 of the state’s 46 counties will operate as unified school districts.

There’s no doubt that consolidating very small districts saves money. A 2009 study by the Jim Self Center on the Future showed that all eight of the state’s school districts with less than 1,000 students (Marion 7, Florence 4 are among them) had per pupil administrative costs that were double, triple or more the state average of $234 per pupil. This is common sense, of course. A recent Morning News story by education reporter Elizabeth Lamb showed that the burden of high, upper administration salaries alone can place a real drag on small district finance.

District consolidation remains a controversial topic, and most district “marriages” remain shotgun affairs where one or both parties are brought to the altar against their will. In recent years, as the economy sank into the Great Recession, failing finances often played the “shotgun” role. Districts consolidated because they had no other choice. The Timmonsville (Florence 4) district likely faces a similar choice in the near future — providing it can find a willing (or slightly coerced) partner.

It is abundantly clear, from high altitude, and maybe from a low one, that consolidation is a good and necessary thing (to use still more wedding phraseology) for small districts. Fiscal efficiency is lacking in districts with less enrollment than a good-sized middle school. One national study puts the efficiency “milepost” at 1,500 students. Below that threshold, districts are generally inefficient. Above 1,500, little additional saving is seen. Students may not be as well-served in microdistricts either. Special classes — and sometimes, even not-so-special ones — may not be available in small districts. Hiring a teacher just for French, Japanese or German, or for higher math and science, is beyond the scope of some small districts. Some extracurricular activities, which are central to the scholastic experience, may be unavailable as well.

And yet, resistance remains. Larger districts, like Florence 1, are often unwilling to take on struggling partners. Smaller districts are wary of being swallowed up inside a heartless educational colossus. They do not want to give up hoary tradition, community spirit, or hard-earned autonomy.

And bigger is not always better. The same study that suggested 1,500 as a minimum for efficiency, also noted that large districts could be out of touch with students’ particular needs. Breaking up some of the really big districts might be a good idea, too.

For now, however, the pressing needs, at least in these parts, seem to be improving the lot of small, struggling districts. As we have said before, that should be a priority for local education leaders, and local legislators, in the years ahead. There’s only one reason we think that: it will better serve all children in the area.

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