Scotland County school officials and members of the county commissioners met Thursday afternoon to talk about school consolidation. The two groups will meet again next week to continue those discussions.
We think that is a good thing.
The plan proposed by the school system will cost $41 million and that kind of large, long-term investment needs to be vetted multiple times and then some more. No one wants consolidation to become a financial albatross around the necks of county taxpayers.
But we also understand that the clock is ticking and costs go up every day the project is delayed.
The main question we need to ask is whether consolidation is necessary? Some have suggested that the idea is a part of a “consolidation craze” trending across school systems.
But a study done by Scotland County schools in 2014 showed that our middle schools were operating at only about 60 percent capacity. That is because school enrollment is down — by about 841 students in the past nine years. And the situation is not getting better. Based on U.S. Census birth rate data, enrollment here is expected to continue to drop 300 to 400 more students over the next five to seven years.
To deal with that shrinking student population, the system proposed the consolidation plan that already includes the shuttering of Washington Park and Pate Gardner, with students from those schools being sent to Sycamore Lane, a former middle school. Sycamore Lane students were transferred to the two existing middle schools in the county.
The second phase of the project calls for students at Covington Street Elementary School to go to Sycamore Lane Elementary which would be renovated to accommodate the extra students and staff.
Covington Street School would then take in students from the Early College, who are currently at St. Andrews University. School officials say the Early College change came about after St. Andrews expressed a need for additional space to expanding its programs. At the same time, the school system want to be able to expand the Early College High School program but because of space constraints cannot do that at St. Andrews. Moving SEarCH to Covington would allow that successful program to become available to more students.
The consolidation plan includes the closure of South Scotland, I.E. Johnson, and North Laurinburg elementary schools. To serve those displaced students, the school system plans to build a new elementary school and add a new wing to Laurel Hill Elementary.
The plan is also expected to help with aging facilities. The average age of our schools, prior to consolidation, was 50 years old. After the first phase of consolidation, the school system reduced that average school building age to 29 years.
Still what will these proposed changes mean? Will the plan leave a bunch of empty buildings scattered across the county with fewer and more crowded schools in its wake?
School officials say no.
School board members argue that they are committed to making sure that schools that close will not be left empty. Pate-Gardner has already been sold and Washington Park is still up for bid. Officials tell us that there have been several purchase inquiries about some of the other schools that could potentially close.
School officials also claim that the first phase of consolidation has not affected class size and they don’t expect that to change as other phases are implemented. According to the school system, class sizes ratios will remain as follows: K – 3rd grade 1:21; 4th – 5th grade, 1:24; 6th – 8th grade 1:26; and 9th – 12th grade, 1:29.
That said, we hope consolidation can proceed. We trust that the school board and county commissioners can work out a reasonable way to finance the project.
The alternative are aging and poorly utilized schools and no one should want that.