Rural South Carolinians Help District Rethink Consolidation

Last Updated: April 02, 2009

This article appeared in the March 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
“An agenda of consolidation and making mega-schools is a virus across the country, and there’s no exception here,” says Calvin Morris of Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina. “To rural communities, it’s a death knell.”
Residents of Wadmalaw and Johns Islands were on the front lines this winter when the county-wide school superintendent put forward a series of proposals to eliminate or reconfigure a number of African-American community schools in Charleston County, which encompasses both the urban center of Charleston and many rural areas and islands.
“Wadmalaw has one school and everything revolves around it,” says Morris. “You fracture and segregate an entire community when you take the school out.”
Morris is a minister and also serves on the St. John’s Constituent Board of Trustees, District 9, which includes both Wadmalaw and Johns Islands. Although the county-wide “consolidated” school board governs schools in the entire county, eight “constituent districts” have a board of trustees with some governance and administrative authority over district schools.
Among the schools slated for closure were Frierson Elementary on Wadmalaw Island and St John’s High on Johns Island, one of the east coast’s largest islands and home to more than 11,000 people.
Consolidation proponents cited budget pressures and claimed that closing schools would save money and improve programs.
The dubious claim (rarely proven after the fact) that consolidation saves money is often met with skepticism by communities.
Long-standing tensions in coastal South Carolina freighted the issue even more than usual. There were concerns that charter schools, which may recruit target groups of students and are not required to provide transportation, drain community schools of resources and enrollment.
Further, development of the islands has encroached on the fishing and basket-weaving economies of local communities and driven up property taxes. Many long-term residents, especially African-Americans, have felt singled out to defend their property titles, the existence of their communities, and their right to live on the islands their families have made home for generations.
As is often the case with consolidation proposals, there were rumors and misunderstandings, incomplete media reports, and a history of distrust.
“The school district had given a vague picture of what was being planned,” says Morris. “So the first thing you must do is educate the community to what’s really going on.”
He continues, “You have to be proactive, not reactive because once something’s done, oftentimes it can’t be undone. Many times the real information is not publicized, so you have to get it out yourself. We held community meetings, large and small, and went door to door. We generated written materials to put in people’s hands. That’s important, but people need to hear it, too. You have to get community people interested and involved so they can carry the message.”
The South Carolina Rural Education Grassroots Group leant their support to Charleston County’s rural communities and along with the Rural Trust helped prepare research information about school size and consolidation.
The consolidated school board held a meeting in each constituent district to discuss the proposals. In most places, those meetings were heated.
But residents of District 9 had done their own work. “When they came to our community, instead of an emotional yelling match, we had people with facts and figures who knew how to present calmly and precisely,” says Morris.
The District 9 community put forward an alternative plan, already agreed upon within the community’s own series of meetings and discussions. That plan called for keeping the schools on Wadmalaw and Johns Island.
Local residents continued to organize within their communities, to raise questions about the proposals, and to share with school board members and the media research on consolidation and facts about the proposals.
Several weeks later the county-wide board voted to keep all the District 9 community schools in place.
“When people at the grassroots come together, become active, learn policy, understand what’s really happening, and get organized, they can bring about change,” Morris says, quickly adding, “But it’s ongoing, you can’t stop.”
Now the schools must stabilize enrollment and raise achievement levels. “We’re continuing to work,” he explains. “You have to make folks mindful that it’s not a one-shot thing. They have to keep attending meetings, not just parents, but everyone concerned about the students and the community. And not just community meetings, but caucuses and school board meetings. And you have to keep educating people; you can’t rely on the media because it’s often not accurate or complete, or it’s slanted.”
He continues, “You have to sort through all the data and the double-talk and not be afraid to ask questions or to act. Things change when grassroots folks put themselves out there.”
Community meetings now are focused on how volunteers and local businesses can become more involved in schools, in helping to bring up achievement especially for struggling students, and in making sure all the schools have a thriving enrollment.
“This is something the people are doing,” Morris concludes. “It’s not about any specific individual, it’s about the people doing things for our children.”

Read more from the March 2009 Rural Policy Matters.