S.C. House District 14 Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens) said Thursday night that he will not re-introduce legislation later this year calling for the consolidation of Laurens County School Districts 55 and 56.
“I still believe it is the right thing to do,” Pitts said of the consolidation. It would be pointless for me to file a bill unless my delegation is going to back me on it. So, the answer, at this point, will be no.”
Both District 16 Rep. Mark Willis and Sen. Danny Verdin said they would not support a consolidation bill unless it was clearly supported by their constituencies.
Pitts addressed what County Councilman and District 56 Assistant Superintendent David Pitts called “the elephant in the room” near the end of a meeting of county and civic leaders Mike Pitts convened at The Ridge. The meeting was to discuss population growth in Laurens County, but Mike Pitts was pressed on what became a controversial bill.
“I made a huge (mistake) because there are a lot of people in this room who believe the consolidation idea is the right way to go, but they did not like the fact that I presented it,” Pitts said. “Now, did it sneak? Was it done in the dark of night? No, it was done through the normal process. It was done the way Orangeburg was done and the way Union was done – as a local bill, and it’s voted on by the local delegation. It followed the normal, local bill process.”
Mike Pitts said he had worked with the S.C. Board of Education and Clemson University’s education department to formulate the consolidation bill. The bill was introduced as “local legislation,” which did not go through committee before being approved nearly unanimously on the House floor.
After receiving pushback locally, he tabled the bill.
“I filed the bill after a long planning session with the Department of Education that was pushing the consolidation of school districts statewide,” he said. “Statewide, they want one school district per county.”
Mike Pitts also said he made a mistake by not seeking out local input on the bill, but added that had he sought the opinions of leaders from both District 55 and 56, none would have supported consolidation.
He noted a population projection by Clemson researchers that showed population growth would necessitate the eventual creation of a third school district in the county.
“I’m a Republican, and the Republican creed is don’t grow government, shrink government,” he said. “So, going from two (districts) to one. If I had went the third district route, I would have been growing government by creating a third school district.”
While consolidation remains an option in the future, District 56 Superintendent David O’Shields said each district’s autonomy is important.
“One of the things that I think is often unknown is the level of cooperation between the districts,” O’Shields said. “One thing you find in a poor county, is that students don’t stay put; they go from one place to the other. When they go from one place to the other, (District 55 Superintendent Dr. Stephen Peters) and I have to work collaboratively for the good of the whole county. . . . We’re working together. It’s not 55 versus 56 or a Red Devil versus a Raider. We’re working collaboratively as educational entities for the good of the whole.”
While Mike Pitts said district consolidations in other areas, including Orangeburg, were presented to the House through the local-bill process, he also said that Orangeburg has “ended up in a fistfight that is still being handled in the court system.”