The Buzz

No fix for rural SC schools this year, senators say

The State

More than a year after the state’s highest court ordered lawmakers to improve the state’s poor schools, S.C. lawmakers will delay until at least next year deciding whether to help those schools pay to rebuild or replace aging buildings.

A $200 million-a-year state borrowing plan for those schools – first pushed by Gov. Nikki Haley in January – will die when the legislative session ends in June, state senators said Wednesday.

The bill is expected to be re-introduced next year, the start of a new two-year legislative session. But it could face new legislators, elected in November, and have to compete against what could be new legislative priorities.

News that lawmakers will postpone the borrowing plan until next year is a setback for poor schools, said Carl Epps, an attorney representing schools that sued in 1993 seeking more state money.

“Once again, members of the Legislature won’t do what’s right by these kids,” Epps said. “We’ve been looking at this for 20 years.”

Lawmakers have OK’d $1.5 million in spending in the state budget that takes effect July 1 to study the building needs of poor school districts, many in rural South Carolina. That study is the first step toward deciding which school districts have the greatest need for state money to construct buildings, state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said.

A spokesperson said Gov. Haley is committed to the helping the districts replace their aging facilities but did not say whether the Republican wants the borrowing proposal passed this year.

“The governor will continue to fight for the school facilities initiative, because when our students and teachers are in schools they are proud of, when they are in schools that are safe, they excel,” said Haley spokesperson Chaney Adams.

The House passed the bill and sent it to the Senate in late April.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, urged senators Wednesday to try to pass the bill before the legislative sessions ends next month.

However, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said the legislation, which has not made it out of a Senate committee, would be tough to pass this year.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said his subcommittee, which helps decide state spending on K-12 education, needs more time to iron out details of the bill.

Hayes also said lawmakers have time to work on the legislation.

The bill will not take effect until next July, regardless of whether it passes this legislative session or the next, he said. The state would not start borrowing money for the program until the 2017-2018 budget year, which starts in July 2017.

“It really can’t take effect until next year, so we’ll take it up in January. We’ve got some time. But the key thing is we have to get the study done, find out where the needs are.”

Legislators must update court on progress

The proposal is a major reform in the way schools pay for buildings and maintenance.

If the bill becomes law, the state would contribute money to school construction for the first time. Under current law, districts must rely on the money they can raise from local taxes to pay for buildings. That leaves poor school districts at a disadvantage compared with wealthier ones.

The decision to delay the facilities bill comes as lawmakers are close to approving more than $300 million in new education spending in the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1, including sending $217 million more to districts for per-student support, raising bus-driver pay and spending $29 million more on technology.

Haley pushed for those moves in her executive budget.

But lawmakers also face a court-imposed deadline at the conclusion of the legislative session in June.

In November 2014, the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers, the governor and rural school districts to work together to improve public education.

The court’s order came in its decision of a 1993 lawsuit brought by poor, rural school districts – including Abbeville – against the state. In the lawsuit, the poor districts said they needed more money to provide students with a quality education.

Then, last September, the court gave lawmakers, the governor and school districts until February to devise a plan to address the inadequacies the court had cited in the state’s schools.

Under pressure from the governor and lawmakers who said the court had overstepped its authority, the court later dropped the deadline.

Now, the governor and state lawmakers have until a week after the legislative session ends – sometime next month – to report on their progress in addressing the problems cited by the court.

Haley and other leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature have said they have made education a top priority.

Haley rolled out her first K-12 proposal in 2014, as she was seeking re-election, calling on the state to spend more money on children in poverty, technology and reading initiatives. Since then, Haley has said lawmakers must make education a priority in the new state budget.

In January, Haley pushed for the $200 million-a-year borrowing proposal, citing leaky roofs and unsafe school buildings.

Hayes said he is optimistic the school facilities bill will pass next session.

“We’re on track on the Abbeville agenda, and this – we’ll get it passed next year,” he said.

Spearman also said she is confident the state will address problems identified in the Abbeville lawsuit.

“We believe the Legislature is taking significant steps in the right direction in regards to the Abbeville lawsuit, especially taking into account the severity of needs in other areas of the state,” she said.

Needed: ‘Action from the Senate’

Still, Lucas, the House speaker, urged senators to reach an agreement by the end of this year’s legislative session on the House-passed borrowing plan.

“The House is committed to education reform, which is why we spent over a year studying our current policy before passing seven bills that address our state’s education needs,” Lucas said in a statement.

“The needs for facility improvements and technical assistance, especially in poor and rural school districts, will not subside without action from the Senate.”

Costs of schools in SC

A plan for the state to borrow up to $200 million a year to help districts pay to replace or renovate aging school facilities is on hold until next year. How far would that money go? A look at what it costs to build new schools:

Richland 2 School District

$28 million: Trenholm Road extension elementary school, under construction

$40 million: Institute of Innovation, under construction

Kershaw School District

The school board is considering a $129 million bond referendum, which includes building four new schools, renovating 10 buildings and improving safety at three athletics facilities:

$5.5 million: Camden High School renovations

$21 million: Lugoff Elementary new construction

S.C. education and the Supreme Court

1993 – Poor, rural school districts sue the state for more money, alleging they cannot provide students with an adequate education

November 2014 – The court rules in favor of rural school districts that sued the state

September 2015 – The court gives the governor, lawmakers and school districts a February deadline to come up with a school-improvement plan

November 2015 – The court drops the deadline

A week after the 2016 legislative session concludes – The court has asked the state to give an update on its progress toward addressing concerns raised in the lawsuit