- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina should give grants to poor, rural school districts to help them maintain buildings and encourage consolidation, state Superintendent Molly Spearman said Wednesday.

Spearman told a Senate panel that a school infrastructure bank and a fund to encourage collaboration should be part of the Legislature’s plan for improving public schools.

Lawmakers are under court order to come up with a plan by the summer. The state Supreme Court’s revised November order followed justices’ ruling a year earlier that the state doesn’t provide educational opportunities in poor districts that initially sued over funding in 1993.

A House committee’s recommendations, issued last month, include creating a low-to-no-interest loan program for facilities.

But poor districts can’t afford to pay back such loans, Spearman said.

“The needs need to be paid for by the state,” she said, while adding “I don’t think we just need to go in and give them money for facilities.”

The Legislature should first fund an evaluation of plaintiff districts’ infrastructure needs, she said. That could be done as part of a larger “efficiency study” that also reviews transportation, staffing and curriculum, expected to cost roughly $2 million, Spearman said.

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, questioned the timeline.

“Aren’t you talking about something way down the road?” he asked. “Once it’s built, we’re talking years, and we can’t wait years.”

But Spearman said evaluations in the districts that sued could be completed in a matter of months.

“No, we’re not thinking years. They’ve waited long enough,” she said, referring to the 23-year-old case.

Spearman said she can’t suggest how much to set aside for infrastructure grants until the study is complete. However, she hopes legislators can create an incentive fund in the upcoming, 2016-17 budget, starting with a couple million dollars.

She recognized the idea of consolidation is loathed by many constituents. Consolidating districts within a county needs to be a local decision, but the state can provide encouragement. For example, if debt is preventing adjoining districts from merging, an incentive bank could help erase that obstacle, she said.

The state’s 81 school districts range in size from 700 students in tiny Blackville-Hilda and in Denmark-Olar to 75,000 in Greenville County, according to Education Department data.

Beyond merging, consolidation can range from sharing a technology employee to regionalizing career centers, Spearman said.

“The question is, how can these small districts share and collaborate resources so they offer more to their students?” she said.

Other parts of Spearman’s proposal include:

-Restructuring the state’s salary schedule to pay teachers more, starting in the plaintiff districts.

-Expanding summer reading programs.

-Increasing money for technology.

-Growing the state’s online offerings in VirtualSC.

-Revamping the state’s funding formulas, which date to the 1977 Education Finance Act. That law, which established the so-called base student cost, remains one of the state’s major formulas for determining how much money to send to districts. Adjusted yearly for inflation, it was meant to cover the minimal education needs of the time.

“I don’t have the answer, but it’s time,” Spearman said about an overhaul. “Populations have shifted. Those old textile mills have moved away. We’ve Band-aided and Band-aided and Band-aided. It’s not just hurting rural districts, it’s hurting every district in South Carolina.”


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