The Buzz

Haley proposes $200 million-a-year fix for blighted rural schools

Gov. Nikki Haley
Gov. Nikki Haley Columbia

Gov. Nikki Haley proposed Wednesday the state borrow up to $200 million a year to renovate blighted school buildings or build new ones.

In making her proposal, Haley said that some S.C. schools are in “horrible condition.”

“We're seeing schools with leaky roofs. We're seeing teachers having to wear rain boots to walk through the rain. We're seeing walls that are molded ... building structures that are not safe,” Haley said, announcing her education proposals for the 2016 legislative session. “It is time to deal with facilities.”

The Lexington Republican is making education a focus of her second term.

In 2014, as she was running for a second term, Haley proposed spending more to educate children who live in poverty, on reading programs and on school technology. Those efforts were approved by legislators.

The governor and legislators also are under pressure from the S.C. Supreme Court to improve the state’s schools. In 2014, the court said South Carolina’s schools were unconstitutional because they did not provide an adequate education. The court has asked for an update this summer on what the state is doing to improve those schools.

In this year’s budget, which begins July 1, Haley also proposes:

▪  Spending $15 million on a program, now in its first year, aimed at recruiting teachers to rural areas with high teacher turnover. Under the plan, the state would pay up to $7,500 a year in tuition for every two years that an educator teaches in a rural district where turnover has averaged 12 percent over the past five years.

▪  Expanding students’ access to Internet in their homes – not just in their classrooms. “In order to be able to study and in order to be able to do homework, you have to have Internet in your home,” Haley said.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, praised Haley’s proposals. “Education reform is a long-overdue, critical conversation that must take place to protect our state’s economic and societal prosperity,” Lucas said in a statement. “Gov. Haley has embraced this issue, and we are encouraged by her advocacy for reforms intended to give our children access to the education they deserve.”

‘Leaky roofs,’ ‘unsafe’ structures

S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman joined Haley for her announcement at Frances Mack Intermediate School in Gaston.

Haley highlighted her alliance with Spearman – a former lawmaker and longtime advocate of public schools – saying the two were working together on the initiatives. Spearman, a first-term Saluda Republican, has been urging lawmakers to approve spending money on school buildings. Haley said she first wants to assess the condition of school facilities across the state.

Her budget request includes $2.5 million for that review, which also would prioritize projects for funding based on school districts’ needs and ability to pay. A five-member panel, chaired by the governor, would oversee the evaluation, design and funding of construction projects statewide.

Haley’s proposed borrowing would be a new source of money for school districts – now responsible for building and maintaining their own schools. However, districts in impoverished, rural areas struggle to raise enough money just to replace roofs, much less renovate schools, Haley and other education leaders have said.

“Morale matters for kids and teachers,” said Haley. “If we put them in schools they’re proud of, if we put them in schools that are safe, they’ll know that they’re worth more.”

Recruiting teachers to rural districts

The state already offers a loan that can be forgiven to educators who teach in critical subjects or in districts with high poverty or low performance. Would-be teachers can borrow up to $15,000 from the state, all eligible for forgiveness.

But that program does not focus on the rural districts with the highest teacher turnover rates. Those turnover rates frustrate education officials who say the problem is exacerbated by teacher shortages in rural areas and critical subjects, including math and special needs.

Haley said some teachers who go to the rural schools to take advantage of the loan-forgiveness program will stay in those districts and become part of the community.

“A lot of times, when they go to the rural school districts, they stay there, they meet their spouse there, they make friends there, they become part of the community,” she said. “So it may not have a movie theater and it may not have a restaurant, but it has a community they fall in love with.”

Internet at home

Haley proposes spending $29 million, again, to expand school districts’ technology – from computing and Internet access to virtual classrooms.

At the governor’s request, lawmakers have spent nearly $60 million over the past two years on technology for districts. This year, Haley proposes spending an additional $11 million on technology. The money would be roughly split between improving wiring and Internet capacity in older buildings in economically distressed areas and expanding Internet access into some students’ homes.

To start, the plan would aim to give 10,000 students access to Internet “hot” spots that they can take home.

Haley’s education plan

The governor’s proposals include:

▪  $200 million a year in state borrowing to build or renovate school buildings

▪  $19 million to raise salaries for school-bus drivers to $10.96 an hour from $7.46 and make those positions full time with benefits

▪  $11.5 million to expand the statewide charter school district to accommodate seven new schools

▪  $3.5 million to address safety hazards in districts

Political challenges in two proposals

Two changes that Haley proposed Wednesday could face political pushback from Democrats.

▪ Haley renewed her calls to have the governor appoint the state education superintendent, now a partisan position elected statewide. The change would require a constitutional amendment, which voters could vote on in November.

Democrats and some education advocates have resisted that change, which would hand over to the GOP governor the last statewide office that an S.C. Democrat held.

▪ Haley also proposed moving the duties of S.C. First Steps – an early-childhood nonprofit – into other state agencies. For example, oversight of state-funded private 4-year-old kindergarten programs would go to the S.C. Department of Education, which oversees that program in public schools.

Haley vetoed a bill temporarily reauthorizing First Steps in 2014, saying it had failed to be as effective as it should be. Lawmakers overrode her veto.

On Wednesday, she renewed her criticism of the agency, created by Jim Hodges, the state’s last Democratic governor.