- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina could borrow up to $200 million annually to repair and replace deteriorating K-12 public schools statewide, under legislation approved Tuesday by the House.

The measure, advanced by a 98-5 vote, is meant to partly address the state Supreme Court’s ruling in November 2014 that the Legislature must do more to provide educational opportunities in poor, rural school districts. Lawmakers face a June deadline to present justices with their plan for fixing South Carolina’s broken education system.

Another perfunctory vote, expected Wednesday, would send the bill to the Senate. If it is enacted, borrowing would be at least a year away.

The bill first requires a statewide evaluation of districts’ infrastructure needs, funded by $1.5 million in legislators’ 2016-17 budget proposals. Legislators would then receive a priority list of projects approved by the State Board of Education, to be updated yearly.

State Superintendent Molly Spearman said the initial focus will be on districts that initially sued the state in 1993 over equitable funding.

“We owe it to them to begin there,” she said Tuesday. “So many areas have no means of raising additional revenue for capital projects other than on the backs of the same few businesses that might be there.”

Spearman said the bill could also help areas of “extreme growth” keep up with student population. It could also improve efficiencies by building facilities, such as vocational centers, that serve multiple districts, she said.

The bill allows for money to be awarded to districts as either grants or loans, depending on the project’s size and/or ability to pay.

Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson, D-Greenville, questioned whether the borrowing amount “is at all adequate.”

“What impact would be made with that amount and how long would it take to really improve our schools?” she asked.

Such questions are unanswerable until the evaluation’s completed, said House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson. He said the proposal offers a way to help districts while being accountable to taxpayers.

“Without this, it won’t get any better,” he said. “This is a plan that’s sustainable.”

Gov. Nikki Haley presented the $200 million idea in January, saying she can’t ignore the leaky roofs, moldy walls and other unsafe conditions in schools she visits. Education includes improving the buildings where students spend most of their day, she said, pointing to blown-up photos of decrepit conditions.

“We cannot continue to ignore that in much of our state, we have a facilities problem,” she said in her State of the State address a week later.

“Children can’t learn as well when the walls of their classrooms are crumbling around them. Teachers can’t teach as well when the hallways they walk are littered with puddles. Our students and our teachers deserve no less than to go to school each day in a place that is safe and clean.”

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