But Anderson School District One Superintendent Wayne Fowler said he would be reluctant to change the current system, which he believes is working well now.
“I still have reservations about it,” says Fowler. “We would gain dollars, but we could lose … our tradition of excellence.”
That’s not to say there wouldn’t be some advantages — the districts would probably have a more balanced assessed value per pupil, Fowler said. Currently, Anderson One has one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the state, Fowler says — a point he often makes during school board meetings.
Consolidating from five to three school districts was not the only option in the 87-page study, but it was the one that garnered the most attention. Under the option, Anderson One would absorb most of Anderson Four into a new northern district. District Two would join with the T.L. Hanna High School half of District Five to create a new eastern district, and District Three would join with the Westside High School portion of District Five and the Townville portion of District Four to start a new western district, according to the study.
Another option would be to consolidate the five districts into one.
School districts could adopt portions of the suggestions or not do anything. The report only discusses consolidating school districts, and not schools.
“It’s like a menu in a restaurant. You can pick and choose what you want,” said Anderson County Board of Education Administrator Joey Nimmer.
Anderson County Board of Education Member Mike Gray said something needs to be done, but acknowledged that few seem willing to consolidate the five school districts into one.
“I don’t care which way they do it as long as every student in Anderson County has the same shot at a quality education,” Gray said. But that’s not the way the system has been working in Anderson County for the past 50 years, he adds.
“The way schools are funded, it doesn’t work unless you have that equality,” he said.
Gray pointed out that neither Anderson Three nor Anderson Four have a career and technology center, whereas Anderson One and Two have one.
“As a matter of fact, they have a state-of-the art vocational school,” he said.
Gray also praised Fowler, saying he and Anderson One officials seem to have a good grasp on keeping costs low in Anderson One — a benefit that he doesn’t want to see be limited to just one district.
“If he’s mastered some way to reduce costs, wouldn’t it be great if we could all learn how to do that?” Gray asked.
But Fowler said he fears that Anderson One would lose its solid reputation, and believes district officials would be less accessible to parents if Anderson One had to merge with another district.
“Programmatically, a district with about 10,000 is about ideal,” Fowler said. Anderson One’s population is a little lower than 9,500, making it the second largest in the county. The average student population per district in Anderson One is about 6,000 — Anderson Two’s is about 3,700; Anderson Three’s is about 2,600, Anderson Four’s is about 2,900, and Anderson Five’s is about 12,000. The districts had about the same enrollment and tax base since they were founded in 1952, but that has changed since then, according to the report.
Anderson One is by far the fastest growing school district in the county, having increased 45 percent from 1989 to 2009.
Would consolidation save money?
“Consolidation is not a money-saving issue,” Fowler said. Although some may argue that consolidating school districts will eliminate administrative staff positions and buildings, Fowler pointed out that many of the larger school districts throughout the state have several satellite district offices.
But the point of the study wasn’t to save money, but to figure out how to equalize the structure, he said. Whether a district would receive more funds per student could depend on the individual school district’s tax base and expenditures per student.
“They were looking for equity,” Fowler said.
The Strom Thurmond Institute study, which cost the taxpayers $58,000, states that the three-district model “offers the best fit for Anderson County in terms of more nearly equal student population, assessed value per pupil, and growth potential in order to achieve a more uniform allocation of resources among districts.”
“At this point, the only thing that has been done is that the study has been concluded and presented,” Nimmer said. “Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess.”
The five superintendents have planned to meet and submit their input to the county board of education.
“The board itself has just taken information from the public,” Nimmer said.
If the school districts, county residents and County Board of Education were interested in consolidating the five school districts into three, the county board would request that the Anderson County Legislative Delegation place the question on the ballot for a referendum.
If the option to consolidate into three districts were chosen, officials should try to revisit district lines during the census every 10 years to make sure there won’t be disparities among school districts, the study states.
At this point, Nimmer said the board members are glad to have held the study, even if nothing occurs. Another advantage was that the study showed that the districts perform well academically, he said.
“The county came through looking great. All of the districts are doing very well,” Nimmer said.
The report indicates that doing nothing wouldn’t be a good option, referring to it as the “status quo” option. “It is not a particularly attractive option for Anderson County’s five school districts because the current pattern of very uneven growth in population and tax base is expected to continue in the future,” the study states. “If the county chooses to leave things as they are, the children of Anderson County will have very different educational opportunities, depending upon the school districts in which their families live.”
Gray agrees. Although he says he understands that equality is an especially sticky issue in other parts of the state, Anderson County should be able to resolve it for its approximately 30,000 students. And yet, for decades the districts have not been equitable, he said.
“Shame on us for allowing that to happen,” he said.
Gray said he believes Anderson Five in particular seems to be taking the issue “personally.”
“They’re taking it very personally as though we’re attacking them,” he said.
Inequity in funding
Even before the study, it’s been no secret that the districts aren’t funded equally. Even the state legislature has tried to tackle the problem of funding all 85 school districts equally, so far without success.
“The funding is all over the place because no tax base is the same district to district,” Nimmer said.
Nimmer said there’s also a movement in the state legislature to have one school district per county, which would eliminate 39 school districts.
“If that was the best way to do things, we’d be doing it already,” Nimmer said. “I don’t think we should paint with a broad brush.”
To see the complete study, visit the County Board of Education’s Web site at www.boardofed.net.