MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – Florence County School District Four, in Timmonsville, is in the midst of its final year as its own entity.
It’s set to consolidate into Florence One Schools effective July 1, 2022.
But it’s just one of several rural school districts across South Carolina in the consolidation process.
“Timmonsville over the course of the last 10-15 years, they have ended in the red several times and the state has had to come in to help bail them out,” South Carolina Superintendent Molly Spearman said. “It’s very difficult to make ends meet when you’re very, very tiny.”
On top of financial issues, Florence Four has faced a shrinking student population in recent years. The state took control around three years ago and announced the consolidation plans earlier this year.
The plan is to retire the high school and use the building for the elementary and middle schools. That’s prompted some pushback in town.
“All kids should not be combined together; I think that will be a problem,” said Tritney Gunn said, who has three students in the district.
She’s concerned about her children going to a high school in a different community from the one they’ve grown up in.
“Some kids, like my child, may get bullied and this one may get bullied,” she said. “And you know you got some high schoolers that are very, very mean.”
But Spearman told News13 consolidation can be the best option to ensure equal opportunity for all students.
“If the buildings on one side of the county are really modern and new and well-kept, and the other side of the county the buildings are old and barely have a new roof on them, we got a problem there,” Spearman said.
Spearman has been vocal of her support for consolidation. She says she’s a proponent of it in districts under 1,500 in population and especially under 1,000. By next summer, there are 11 districts statewide that will be consolidating into five.
“Almost everyone realizes that the population in our rural areas in South Carolina, even here where I live in Saluda County, is diminishing,” Spearman said. “We need to get all of our districts to a point where they can be managed efficiently. And I believe that happens somewhere around 2,000 to 2,500 students. So, yes, there are some more consolidations that should probably occur.”
U.S. Census Bureau data shows the country is aging, which is impacting rural communities the U.S.
“If schools have to consolidate, if retail establishments have a hard time staying afloat because suddenly their consumer base is eroding year after year, you have infrastructure that needs to be maintained and a smaller tax base to do so,” senior demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau Marc Perry said.
Spearman said she’s grateful the legislature has funded $100 million this year for new facilities in districts that need it most. She hopes the funds are recurring and says it’s time to reevaluate the funding formula for schools to support areas with a low tax base.
“We’ve put band aids on now since 1977 when the Education Finance Act passed way long ago, when every community had a textile mill and there was a tax base in every community,” Spearman said. “That’s no longer true.”