Pitts - Nothing More Will Be Done
Pitts - "No further action" now on combining Districts 56 and 55.
State Rep. Mike Pitts today issued this statement (1:38 pm May 1): 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."
More Information/ Background:
Bill will combine school districts,
hand finance control to county
By Vic MacDonald
An “in the dead of the night” effort to consolidate School Districts 56 and 55 had moved ahead in the South Carolina General Assembly, part of an effort by state lawmakers to eliminate “small” school districts.
District 56 serves 3,022 students, above the 1,800-student district elimination threshold that has been announced by the State Department of Education. The SC School Board Association supports sensible consolidation, and deconsolidation, but only with a county referendum.
The bill introduced last Wednesday by Rep. Mike Pitts, of Laurens, has no referendum.
The bill was passed by the House on three readings in three days and sent to the S.C. Senate.
"It's an issue that has been discussed and vetted within the county more than once," said Pitts, who now says the bill is going to be amended.
If the original bill was adopted and signed by Gov. Henry McMaster, it would consolidate the school districts on July 1, 2021, after issues are ironed out by a transition team.
Reaction to that bill was swift. A Change.org petition drive to stop the bill has begun; Peyton Crowder's petition went over 300 signatures (500 is the goal) by Saturday morning.
Notice of the bill on The Chronicle’s Facebook account has been hit more than 7,000 times, and almost 4,000 times on the paper’s website.
The bill summary on the state government’s internet portal says (caps are used in the summary):
“A BILL TO PROVIDE THAT LAURENS COUNTY ON JULY 1, 2021, SHALL CONSIST OF ONE SCHOOL DISTRICT TO BE KNOWN AS THE LAURENS COUNTY CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT AND TO ABOLISH THE EXISTING SCHOOL DISTRICTS IN LAURENS COUNTY; TO PROVIDE THAT THE CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT BE GOVERNED BY A BOARD OF TRUSTEES ELECTED IN NONPARTISAN ELECTIONS ON SPECIFIED DATES; TO PROVIDE FOR THE COMPOSITION AND MANNER OF ELECTION OF THE BOARD; TO PROVIDE A SUPERINTENDENT FOR THE DISTRICT TO BE APPOINTED BY THE BOARD; TO PROVIDE FOR THE POWERS AND DUTIES OF THE BOARD AND SUPERINTENDENT; TO PROVIDE FOR THE MANNER IN WHICH SCHOOL BUDGETS MUST BE PRESENTED AND THE SCHOOL TAX MILLAGE BE IMPOSED AND CALCULATED; TO PROVIDE FOR THE TRANSFER OF THE ASSETS AND LIABILITIES OF THE TWO PRESENT SCHOOL DISTRICTS TO THE CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT WITH CERTAIN EXCEPTIONS; TO PROVIDE THE MANNER IN WHICH THE CONSTITUTIONAL DEBT LIMITATION OF THE CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT FOR THE ISSUANCE OF A GENERAL OBLIGATION BOND MUST BE DETERMINED; AND TO PROVIDE FOR A SIX-MEMBER TRANSITION TEAM TO BE APPOINTED BY THE BOARDS OF DISTRICT TWO AND DISTRICT SEVENTEEN TO MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS CONCERNING ATTENDANCE ZONES AND OTHER MATTERS.”
The “District Two and District 17” is a typo. The legislation sets membership of the transition team as:
-- 3 members of the District 55 Board;
-- 3 members of the District 56 Board;
-- 3 members of the Laurens City Council;
-- 3 members of the Laurens County Council;
-- 3 members appointed by the Laurens County Legislative Delegation, which names the chairman (all the board and council appointments include “or their designees”).
In 2020, when the new school board for the Laurens County Consolidated School District is elected, this transition team is abolished.
Then, the new single-district school system will be directed in policy matters by “a board of trustees of seven members, six of whom must be elected from defined single-member districts and one member elected from Laurens County at large (non-partisan).” The Laurens County Council will control financial matters, as its approval is required for the new district’s annual budget.
The new board members select the chairman.
The bill filed by Pitts was on the fast track of local legislation. Its “history” provided with the bill summary is:
-- 4-25, House introduced, read first time placed on calendar without reference;
-- 4-26, House read second time;
-- 4-26, House roll call Yeas 72, Nays 1, the "nay" vote was by Rep. Josiah Magnuson (Campobello), Laurens County's other two state representatives, Mark Willis and Mike Anthony, chose not to vote;
-- House unanimous consent for third reading on next legislative day;
-- 4-27 - the bill passed and was sent to the State Senate.
If District 56 is absorbed in the new Laurens County Consolidated School District, the current seven-member local board chaired by Jim Barton will be dissolved, and the new district will take in District 56’s $10,939 annual expenditures per pupil (compared to Laurens 55’s $9,504 per pupil). District 56 average teacher salary is $48,791 annual, compared to District 55’s $47,317 annual average teacher salary.
In an interview with The Clinton Chronicle on Monday, Pitts said the consolidation bill before the State Senate is going to be amended.
Instead of a date for consolidation, the amendment will call for a study of consolidation.
“I own the blow-back,” Pitts said of opposition to school consolidation as presented in the bill that passed the House. “Two-thirds of the people I have talked to support the concept - they just want a voice.”
In a statement on-line, Willis said, “This is an issue that should be vetted by both districts, parents, community leaders, even students, and it should not be crowded through like this. There’s a lot more at stake here. This is such a surprise to me that I’m still trying to digest it all. I’ve talked to numerous people throughout Laurens County. The biggest concern was that no one knew it was going on. I’m just a firm believer that we represent what the people want. Or don’t want. In the House, we’re the body that’s closest to the voters. We need their thoughts.”
An on-line letter by Jeff Parks, an educator from Laurens, says, “The conservative ideology that many in our area steadfastly believe in holds true to the philosophy that a big, distant government is not the solution, but rather the problem. For decades, many in our state’s rich history have fought the idea of Washington politicians, insulated by distance, telling South Carolinians what is best for them. Today, the same could be said for Mike Pitts and other politicians out of Columbia attempting to tell Laurens County what is best for their schools. Consolidating Laurens District 55 and Laurens District 56 would go against the conservative values that many in our county hold, but more importantly, it would be the wrong decision in doing what is best for our kids.
“One does not have to look far to see why Representative Pitts is frustrated. Many in our community, just like Representative Pitts, are upset by a school bond referendum that failed last fall in Laurens School District 55. However, proposing legislation in Columbia to consolidate school districts is the wrong way to react to the frustration that is shared by Representative Pitts and many of his constituents.
“For one, allowing one hundred and twenty-four House members from throughout the state to vote on legislation that exclusively impacts Laurens County is wrong. Just as many in our county cannot speak to the conditions of schools in places like Dorchester County or Sumter County, neither can those representatives speak to the culture or direction of the two school districts in Laurens County. As citizens, we rightfully rail when Washington politicians try to enact an out of touch policy on our state. What Representative Pitts proposes in Columbia is essentially the same play, just simply being carried out in a different theatre.
“Representative Pitts’ move to push for the consolidation of the two school districts in Laurens County also parallels the same decisions made at other levels of government that have long frustrated the citizenry. Instead of rolling out the plan, holding meetings with constituents, gaining support, and tailoring a plan that addresses the concerns of the opposition, Representative Pitts rolled out this piece legislation in a reckless manner that surprised nearly everyone.
“If Representative Pitts is as frustrated as it appears that he is, he should show some restraint from using his position to enact a change that takes power away from the people he represents. Instead, he should let democracy work as the people in the communities that he represents exercise their power at the voting booth in future school board elections. What he might find is that as opposed to a rash, reactionary decision on his part, the citizens of Laurens County might initiate the change he desires through their own prerogatives, not his.
“In his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan famously made the argument that our schools worked best when they were in the hands of local communities who understood the needs, values, and culture of their neighborhoods. I hope that Representative Pitts will heed this advice and withdraw his legislation proposing the consolidation of the two school districts in Laurens County.”
Pitts said it is important for Laurens County going forward to present a united front in public education.
The county needs property tax equalization, he said. “Ten years ago when the Clinton school district raised taxes, people were calling me complaining their taxes had tripled, as opposed to a neighbor on the other side of the line,” Pitts said.
Now, with District 55 wanting to build a new high school, that debt could spread to people in Clinton, if there is district consolidation, Pitts conceded.
He said having one district, but an equalized tax system, could lessen that tax burden.
“Orangeburg just went through this, and they used the guy who is the expert (on tax equalization),” Pitts said. But before that can happen, there has to be one school district, he said.
“With one school district, we can plan better for the needs of Laurens County,” Pitts said. “The northern portion of our county - Youngs, Greenpond, Hickory Tavern - is growing, 38% growth compared to the rest of the county losing population in the latest census.”
Pitts said growth is going to occur on the Laurens County side of Lake Greenwood - that growth needs to be seen, planned for, and managed.
The Laurens County lawmaker said he is looking beyond just 10 years down the road - “Let’s plan for the next 50 years, where are we going to need services?”
To that end, Pitts said he continues to support the idea of Laurens County Council review of the District 56 and 55 budgets (House Bill 5317). “Greenwood County does it, and it’s just about a rubber-stamp,” he said.
The county governing body not have at least an idea of possible school millage increases is hurting the county budget development process, Pitts said.
“Because of the different make-ups of the school boards, since taxing autonomy started in 1996 until today, the schools have consistently raised millage, and the county has gone two-three-four years not raising millage. The school boards do their budgets before the county council; and if they raise millage, the county is inclined not to raise taxes. But if we are planning for the next 50 years, we have to look at the whole package.
“Let’s plan for the life cycle of a building (half a century). We can do that if we have a unified look on education.”
Pitts said the school consolidation study committee - rather than a transition team - should address some issues related to be constituents being “taken by surprise” by the bills he filed last month.
“I regret that, in hindsight. I own it,” he said. “People wanted to be informed, and they felt like they weren’t. I have taken heat from some of my strongest supporters.”