Politics & Government

After social media threat, SC senator tries to ease concerns about K-12 schools bill

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South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced his proposed budget. It focuses heavily on funding education and public safety.
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South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced his proposed budget. It focuses heavily on funding education and public safety.

Emotions are running high in South Carolina’s debate of two education reform bills as lawmakers mull potentially significant changes to the state’s K-12 schools system.

State Senate Education Committee chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, told Senate colleagues Wednesday that someone on social media “threatened to put my neck in a noose” because he did not allow public testimony during a K-12 subcommittee meeting Wednesday.

Wednesday’s meeting, he said, simply was organizational, a chance for staff to run senators through Senate Bill 419, which includes proposals to raise starting teacher pay to $35,000 a year, consolidate small school districts and eliminate some state-mandated testing.

The Senate bill mirrors House Bill 3759, filed last month by House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington.

In an attempt to quell concerns — particularly from the state’s public-school teachers — Hembree said Wednesday he is looking at scheduling four public meetings across the state late in the day to hear questions and testimony about the bill.

Separately, the S.C. House’s Education and Public Work’s K-12 panel will meet publicly at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday on its version of the bill.

“We need to have these meetings after hours so we can hear from students, hear from parents and hear from teachers,” Hembree said. “Don’t panic. There’s no need to freak out now.”

Worried the education-reform issue could lose momentum in the 2020 election year, Hembree said Wednesday that he wants the Legislature to push hard to overhaul the state’s K-12 schools this year.

“Hopefully, we can harness that energy,” coming from lawmakers, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and outside Columbia, he said.

Specifically for teachers, Hembree said the Legislature needs to give teachers a “substantial” pay increase this year as part of the state’s budget that takes effect July 1. While the governor and the S.C. Department of Education have proposed a 5-percent pay raise, Hembree said Wednesday he would like to give teachers a 10-percent raise over a three-year period, a total of $300 million.

“It (education reform) is a big undertaking, obviously one that is necessary today and (for) the future,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, subcommittee vice-chair.

Hembree said he hopes to have the Senate Education Committee adopt the Senate’s version of the K-12 reform bill by March. Speaker Lucas, meanwhile, has said he hopes to have the House’s version of the bill adopted this year.

But, Hembree said, making the financial fixes needed – in particular, adopting a new formula for state spending on schools and students, currently being devised by the state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office – likely will occur next year.

“I tend to be recklessly optimistic,” Hembree said. “I’m hopeful we can finish our work, this committee, by the end of March (2019).”

Absolutely, agreed Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, the committee’s former chair.

“This is the year to do it.”

SC teachers invited

Teachers are invited to testify next week as the S.C. House’s K-12 education subcommittee continues to debate a House bill to reform the state’s K-12 schools system.

Topic: House Bill 3759

When: 4:45 p.m., Tuesday

Where: Room 110, first floor of the Solomon Blatt Building

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.