Spearman pic

In April 2018, Department of Education Superintendent Molly Spearman held a press conference to announce the state had taken over Williamsburg County School District. Spearman cited many reasons for the takeover one being, after being notified of many deficiencies and given a year to correct them, the state had to redirect approximately $360,000 that is generally spent on special education teachers.

File photo by MIchaele Duke

The latest change in South Carolina’s massive overhaul of its troubled schools guarantees that control of failing districts taken over by the state wouldn’t return to the same leaders who presided over years of abysmal test scores and mismanagement once problems are fixed.

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who’s taken over three districts since 2017, pushed a provision passed by a state Senate subcommittee Wednesday that would remove school board members from state-run districts and lay out how locals could regain control.

“This is how we believe it needs to work. We know how it doesn’t,” Spearman told The Post and Courier after the meeting, referring to the efforts of a previous state superintendent.

The takeover proposal was added to a pared down version of an education bill the S.C. House overwhelmingly approved in March.

The Senate panel ended its work on the bill Wednesday after 10 months of reviewing it section-by-section, moving debate to the full Senate Education Committee.

“If you’re waiting for perfect, we’re not going to do anything. We’re not going to get perfect,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree, R-Little River.

“It’s not going to solve all of (South Carolina’s education problems), but it is meaningful.”

The state’s K-12 agency has been able to take over schools and entire districts for two decades.

But before Spearman’s tenure, the only previous takeover in the state’s history — Allendale County in 1999 — ended eight years later with test scores still stubbornly ranked near the bottom of the state. Squabbles with the district’s school board members helped thwart progress as they continually stirred up the community against state intervention.

After years still stuck at the bottom, Allendale County also became the second district taken over.

Spearman’s agency has since assumed management of Williamsburg County and tiny Florence 4 in Timmonsville, and she declared a fiscal emergency in Sumter County, publicly putting it on warning.

Currently, school board members in the three districts continue to hold their titles, just without any power, while local elections continue.

The bill would dissolve the school boards entirely once the state takes over a district. 

“There’s no need for the board to be there. It’s confusing,” Spearman told the panel earlier this year. “If a district has gotten to that dire of a state where we have to manage the district, they need to be removed and we need to try something different.”

Under the Senate proposal, control would shift to a five-member interim board — appointed by the governor, state superintendent and local legislators — once the district has met its improvement benchmarks for at least three consecutive years.

The appointed board would govern for at least another three years. Exactly how long would depend on approval by the state Board of Education. School board elections could then be held to return control to local residents.

“That’s six years at the bare minimum, realistically seven or eight years before a local board would have complete control,” Hembree said.

Other pieces of the bill would spell out the tiered system of additional support that schools and districts would receive from the state agency over several years before reaching emergency status.

That section largely puts in state law what the agency’s already doing.

Beyond the takeovers, the education agency’s innovation office is helping 44 schools in 22 districts that rank among the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The agency is additionally working with 207 schools where specific groups of students, such as those with disabilities or living in poverty, are faring badly.

Of the state’s 1,220 K-12 public schools, 179 rated “below average” and 56 rated “unsatisfactory” — the two worst grades — on this year’s state report cards.

“The goal is to get to these schools and get them turned around before they’re” at the bottom, Hembree said.

But the agency would need more money to expand its assistance.

The bill specifies that the state can, but doesn’t have to, take over schools and districts that fail to turn around after several years of intervention. The decision would depend on what the agency can handle. 

“We have more schools that need these interventions than we’re able to intervene in today,” Hembree said. “We don’t have the troops on the ground enough to do everything this statute, if passed, would allow us to do.”