A new bill signed into law this week could provide accountability for officials in charge of chronically failing schools in South Carolina.
On Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster signed S. 201, a bill that outlines a step-by-step plan for underperforming schools in South Carolina. Under the new law, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman has authority to take over school districts that fail to meet certain academic or financial standards and fire its school board members.
The law provides a formal process for the the state to take over underperforming schools and districts. An “underperforming school” receives an unsatisfactory or below average rating on its annual school report card and a “underperforming” district has more than 65 percent of its schools receiving an unsatisfactory or below average score on its report card.
Now, school district officials must alert parents when schools receive an “underperforming” rating and they must work with state officials to develop a strategic plan for improvement and inform parents of that plan.
The school board and superintendent also will be required to hold a public meeting to discuss the school’s poor rating with taxpayers.
Under the new law, the state superintendent can declare a state-of-education emergency if:
- the district is underperforming for three straight years
- the state superintendent determines that the district’s plan is turnaround plan results are not working
- the district is in a fiscal emergency as defined here
- the district’s accreditation is denied
Education officials appointed by the State Board of Education would then take over the local board and those officials would serve for a minimum of three years.
State education officials will only consider academic performance after the law goes into effect in July 2022 — it will likely be a few years before the state takes over a district.
Proponents of the bill told FITSNews that they hope the new law at least motivates school board officials to care about improving chronically failing public schools now that there is a chance of board members losing their positions.
Opponents of the bill said they fear that it will create a more test-focused education system and put more pressure on teachers instead of administration. Others are concerned that the law takes power away from voters.
The S.C. Department of Education advocated for the law.
According to the latest data from 2019 report cards (most tests were cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic), the following Richland One schools would be considered as “underperforming”:
- A.J. Lewis Greenview Elementary
- Bradley Elementary
- C.A. Johnson High School
- Caughman Road Elementary
- Columbia High School
- Eau Claire High School
- Edward E. Taylor Elementary
- Horrell Hill Elementary School
- Hyatt Park Elementary
- John P Thomas Elementary School
- Lower Richland High School
- W.J. Keenan High School
- Webber Elementary School
Five of Richland One’s nine high schools would be flagged as underperforming, according to the latest data.
However, the new law will only count future test scores, so it’s hard to say whether or not Richland One school board would be taken over by state officials in the future.
Richland One, which encompasses the greater Columbia, South Carolina area, is the worst performing of South Carolina’s 10 largest school districts (see chart below). Stakeholders in the district have accused the school board of misusing taxpayer funds while 76 percent of its students are living in poverty (see the $700 Jacketgate scandal for reference).
Richland One ranks in the top 6 school districts in the state for spending per pupil. In the 2020-2021 school year, it spent $15,009 per pupil — which is significantly higher than the state’s average at $9,497. Richland One also receives more taxpayer dollars per pupil than most other districts (see chart below).
It’s important to note here that the South Carolina School Boards Association (SCSBA) and SCSBA president-elect/ Richland One school board memberJamie Devine have advocated against this bill from the beginning.
The organization hosts an annual conference for school board members in February at a lavish location. This year, Richland One spent $7,400 for seven school board members to attend the SCSBA conference in Hilton Head.
There appears to be little accountability and big spending inside SCSBA — considering all of the employees make hefty salaries and collect bonus checks, even when South Carolina schools are in shambles.
According to its latest tax forms, SCSBA has six full-time employees whose salaries range from $105,000-$178,000 a year, and who each collect an annual bonus of more than $21,000.
In other words, the six employees at this non-profit focused on education improvement make between three to five times the amount that teachers make in South Carolina.
“In tight times, when school boards are crying poor across SC….they still throwing out $50K plus each year toward their SCSBA membership,” a former school board member said. “What was our return on investment for that?”
Advocates for the new education law hope that it motivates school board members to spend less money on themselves and administrative costs and more money inside the classrooms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].
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