The Buzz

Fix for crumbling S.C. schools passes House budget panel

A plan to borrow up to $200 million a year to help S.C. school districts pay to build new facilities or upgrade existing ones cleared a critical hurdle Tuesday.

The S.C. House Ways and Means Committee unanimously approved the plan, which Gov. Nikki Haley set as a priority in January, as an antidote to leaky roofs, moldy classrooms and unsafe structures in som poor, rural public schools.

Supporters say the borrowing plan would address long-standing inequity in the state’s public schools by creating a new source of money for poor school districts. School districts in impoverished, rural areas often struggle to raise enough money just to replace roofs, much less renovate schools or build new ones.

School districts would apply for financial help, and the S.C. Department of Education would rank the projects based on the districts’ needs. Districts with approved projects would get financial assistance from the state — including loans or grants, which would not have to be repaid — to help renovate existing facilities or build new facilities.

The upgrades could include classrooms, libraries, media centers, laboratories, cafeterias or physical education spaces; infrastructure for technology; health or safety upgrades; upgrades associated with career or technology programs; and deferred maintenance.

The legislation proposes a dramatic change to the way South Carolina pays to provide a free public education to all students.

That system, as currently structured, is unconstitutional because it fails to provide all S.C. children with access to a quality education, the state Supreme Court found in 2014.

The court ordered educators and lawmakers to work together to find solutions to problems outlined in a lawsuit brought by Abbeville schools and other districts in 1993.

The bill also would allow the state to offer money to smaller districts that work together to cut the costs on their administration.

House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said the bill would help districts with building costs and "to get (their) financial houses in order as well.”