Bill authorizing school board removal in failing SC districts on the verge of passage

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A bill that authorizes the state superintendent to remove local school boards in districts with deep-seated academic or financial issues and take over management of those districts indefinitely should head to the governor’s desk next week after a final vote in the South Carolina House, its sponsor said.

The bill has bounced between the House and Senate in recent weeks as lawmakers hashed out minor differences in the conditions that qualify a school or district for state takeover and the composition of an interim board appointed to oversee a district’s operations until it is returned to local control.

The Senate, which took up the House’s latest version of the bill Thursday, made one final tweak and sent it back to the lower chamber, which is expected to concur next week, Sen. Greg Hembree said.

Hembree, an Horry Republican who sponsored the bill, said he’d already discussed the small change with House members who assured him the body would approve it and send the bill on to Gov. Henry McMaster.

The final sticking point between the House and Senate involved the number of years a district must be considered “underperforming” before being subject to state takeover. The House’s language specified that the state could assume control of districts identified as underperforming for three consecutive years or five of the last seven years. The Senate’s latest amendment, which passed 42-1 on Thursday, makes it three consecutive years only.

House Education Committee chairwoman Rep. Rita Allison could not immediately be reached Thursday to confirm whether her chamber will agree with the Senate’s changes.

The South Carolina Department of Education has long championed school turnaround legislation that expands and formalizes the existing process by which the state superintendent can intervene in struggling districts in an effort to improve and sustain academic achievement.

The state schools chief already has the ability to take over failing districts, rendering board members mere figureheads in the process, but does not have the authority to dissolve those boards entirely. The state also lacks a formal process for ceding control of districts they take over that ensures the same local leaders don’t immediately return to power.

Under the proposed legislation, the state superintendent may, with the state Board of Education’s consent, declare a state-of-education emergency exists in schools or entire districts that fail to meet certain criteria.

The emergency designation triggers the dissolution of the local school board and initiates a state-led transformation process that after three consecutive years of progress results in the appointment of an interim board.

The interim board, which is composed of five members who live in the district, must serve for a minimum of three years before the state Board of Education can vote to end the emergency declaration and begin the process of returning control to locally elected board members.

Proponents of the bill argue that children across the state deserve a quality education and when school districts and the boards that control them fail to provide that they should be held accountable.

Opponents say it’s unfair to remove democratically elected officials because the problems many chronically underperforming districts face are systemic and exacerbated by the state’s school funding formula.

The South Carolina School Boards Association, a vocal opponent of the legislation, has additionally argued that removing elected school board members disenfranchises voters, especially those in nonwhite communities, and as a result may violate the Voting Rights Act and make it subject to legal challenge.

State education officials deny that the dissolution of elected school boards is unlawful or unconstitutional.

The governor’s spokesman said Thursday that McMaster would take a very close look at the bill if it reaches his desk, but would not commit to him signing it into law.

If signed by the governor, the bill would take effect July 1, 2022. It would then be at least another three years before the state schools chief could fire a district’s board for chronic underperformance, Rep. Raye Felder, R-York, has said.

The state presently manages districts in Allendale, Florence and Williamsburg counties, but does not have immediate plans to intervene in additional districts upon the bill’s enactment, Education spokesman Ryan Brown has said.

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