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South Carolina lawmakers look at consolidation incentives

February 14, 2019 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers and education officials are looking at offering school districts incentives to ease the consolidation process and ensure public support.

Members of a Senate education subcommittee met Thursday to discuss legislation that would require the school districts in a county that meet two of four criteria to consolidate beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.

Republican Sen. Tom Young, the bill’s author, said his colleagues have been deliberate in framing the measure because of the significant impact it could have on students across the state.

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“The attempt is to help the students that live in those areas and improve their quality of life,” the Aiken lawmaker said.

The criteria for consolidation include districts with student populations of less than 1,500, and districts struggling academically and financially. Lawmakers said the proposed legislation would primarily affect rural and poor districts.

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said 13 districts would qualify under the legislation. Spearman said offering the districts incentives — raises for teachers, high quality student programs and better facilities — hopefully would get local administrators on board.

“Well, the bottom line in all of this and what we need to focus on is what we are going to do for the students,” Spearman said. “Every student deserves a safe school, healthy environment and they deserve high quality programs.”

Because these districts are financially unstable and shrinking quickly, the superintendent wants to provide some relief during the consolidation, Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said.

“If we tell them to consolidate, we can’t just leave them in a mess. We want to set up some kind of parameter to help transition them into this process,” Brown said.

Spearman suggested lawmakers establish an incentive fund monitored by the State Board of Education that would help dwindling and struggling districts pay off debt, standardize teacher pay, and fix existing facilities or build new regional career centers.

Democratic Sen. John Matthews said the General Assembly first needs to explain to members of the public the benefits and costs associated with consolidating districts.

“The state has to bear those costs if you’re going to upgrade the school systems,” the Bowman lawmaker said. “If you make sure you have clear benefits that effects teachers, teachers’ salaries need to be bumped up. Look at the physical facilities improvement. So if you add all that together, I think you’ve got a chance to sell it to the public.”

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No action was taken on the bill and senators will continue hearings next week.

A separate school district consolidation proposal offered by House Speaker Jay Lucas through his 84-page education reform legislation would require rural school districts with less than 1,000 students to merge.