If last year's legislative session was the Year of the Santee Cooper Nuclear Reactor Fallout, then South Carolina lawmakers are hoping this is the Year of Education Reform.
Select members of the state House and Senate attended a legislative …
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Select members of the state House and Senate attended a legislative workshop for media from throughout the state on Thursday, with panels and Q&A sessions previewing key topics for the year of government and politics ahead. The first regular session of the 123rd South Carolina General Assembly will convene at the capitol in Columbia on Tuesday.
"I would say it's realistic, and that's the goal to pass holistic education reform this year," said Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which gets the first crack at writing the state's $8 billion-plus budget.
There was vast agreement on the need to focus on education in South Carolina's public schools, especially because that and many other legislation goals were stymied last year by the overarching, emergency need to deal with the fallout from the failed construction of reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station near Columbia where customers of the state-owned utility company are being expected to pay billions to shoulder the loss.
Legislators said they hope the debacle will not suck all the energy out of the room again this year.
Education reform is not a new idea in South Carolina, which consistently ranks among the bottom of states nationwide.
"We're right where we've been for 75 years," Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, said, emphasizing a complete fix won't be passed and effects seen in the next year or two.
Hembree agreed the foundation for improving education in public schools is finding ways to recruit, retain and train high-quality teachers.
The differences from politicians come in the how of that declaration.
Hembree said he wants to immediately increase salaries 10 percent for teachers and all state employees who make less than $100,000 a year.
Smith mentioned a desire to pass legislation expanding flexibility in schools on how they spend their state funding in conjunction with increased accountability.
Smith and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, agreed that bringing industry into rural districts is vital and that the General Assembly needs to figure out how to properly fund infrastructure in those smaller districts that cannot afford the necessary renovations on their own.
Cobb-Hunter also said there are too many school districts for "this small of a state" and pointed to those like Sumter where they have already been consolidated. Based on direction from the state Department of Education, small districts like those in Clarendon County are also in talks about combining services with similar and nearby districts.
Other differences came Thursday in where more funding should come from, such as from the lottery (Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort) or the general fund (Cobb-Hunter).
Smith spoke highly of the connection between workforce development and industry and economic development in rural communities to boost education, which boosts the talent pool, which increases pay, which brings more people to a community, and so on.
"We're acutely aware of those issues in our area of the state," he told The Sumter Item Thursday. "The way to lift up rural communities is to bring good-paying jobs. It increases the workforce. It increases the income to the community. It increases the quality of life, and we've got to really concentrate on rural industrial development."
Smith said Sumter has demonstrated good practices in bringing industry to a small community, using the industrial park where Caterpillar, BD and other massive manufacturing facilities are as an example. The county made sure the proper water and sewer infrastructure was in place for the area so companies would be incentivized to build.
Sumter is not usually in the conversation at the highest levels of budget talks, but that is different now that there is a Sumterite in a chairman's office.
Smith oversees the committee that looks at the entire state's budget, but it can't hurt to have a legislator from a smaller community at the helm to make sure it doesn't get left out.
"I grew up in Sumter, and it's got a lot of rural aspects to it, and that develops my perspective on how I look at politics," he said. "I think that's going to be good, and it's nice to have somebody from Sumter in a position of leadership over here in the House now."
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