District 14 State Rep. Mike Pitts said the meeting he put together for Thursday at The Ridge was not about school district consolidation.
It was, however, not far away.
A wide range of elected officials – Reps. Pitts and Mark Willis and Sen. Danny Verdin, the school boards of Districts 55 and 56, Sheriff Don Reynolds, County Council, city councils of Laurens and Clinton, the Laurens Commission of Public Works and others – took part in a far-ranging meeting that lasted for over two hours, examining population data, its effect on Laurens County’s future and, yes, the issue of public school consolidation.
Based on the remarks of the three members of the General Assembly present, consolidating Districts 55 and 56 is not as close as it was earlier this year when, thanks to Pitts’ efforts, it almost happened. In the face of public opposition, Willis and Verdin said they could not support it unless the climate changes.
Pitts is for it, but he admitted it had been a mistake to try to push it through hastily.
County Councilman David Pitts asked Mike Pitts if he would file his two bills again.
“If you say it’s not feasible,” Rep. Pitts said to the blue-ribbon audience, “I won’t push it.”
Both of the superintendents – Dr. Stephen Peters of District 55 and Dr. David O’Shields of District 56 – spoke strenuously against it.
Rep. Pitts said he had concluded after considerable research and consultations with experts that one school district was the best course for the county’s future. He reviewed plans for one district, three districts (each taking up about a third of the county) and the addition of a new high school within District 55.
“The easiest route I saw was consolidation,” Pitts said. “I still think it’s the right thing to do. … Will I file a new bill in November (for 2019 consideration)? As it stands now, it would be pointless.”
Rep. Pitts said many who contacted him supported the principle of consolidation “but were reticent about the process.”
O’Shields characterized the current, separate districts as an effective, cooperative relationship.
“We have been able to collaborate for the good of the county,” he said. “We are far more powerful working together than combined.”
Peters provided a similar narrative, touting progress in placing students in higher education and increased success in securing scholarships.
Rep. Pitts began by presenting a slide presentation on the need to plan for future change. The rapidly growing metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Charlotte and Greenville-Spartanburg are drawing young people out of Laurens County, with both Laurens and Clinton shrinking. The primary population growth in the county is on the northern tip, bordering Greenville and the southern tip, on Lake Greenwood.
Greenville County’s population was 451,225 in 2010 and is now projected at 533,520 by 2020. A small percentage of Laurens County’s students attend schools in Greenville County (Hillcrest) and Greenwood County (Ware Shoals).
Pitts said he brought a wide range of the county’s leadership together to stress the importance of planning.
“What if we all work together? What if we all work on economic development together?” he asked. “We have to work smart, and we have to work together.”
Pitts also pointed out that the county currently has more available jobs than people to fill them.
“That’s never happened before in my lifetime,” he said.