COLUMBIA - A better public education, particularly for South Carolina's poor, rural school districts, is a crucial avenue to transform communities that have been devastated by a changing economy, a panel of seven advocates said Wednesday at a University of South Carolina Law School event.

The discussion was put on by South Carolina's Rural Tomorrow, an initiative that seeks to establish a "brain trust" for rural communities to deal with its pressing needs, including better educational opportunities.

Rural education has come to the forefront recently, as a plan from Gov. Nikki Haley directed more funding toward poor, rural schools this year. The Legislature also funded and debated several programs this year seeking to help struggling students and school districts, as businesses have clamored for more well-trained workers to fill needed jobs.

South Carolina has long been at or near the bottom for its lack of opportunities in rural areas. "Surely there's no more pressing topic than the educational needs of rural South Carolina," said Harris Pastides, president of USC, who addressed an audience of about 100 people in the law school auditorium.

The panelists engaged on a host of issues, including a theme that rural communities must be improved through their schools and that the state maintain programs and funding when it finds success.

Community leaders setting a positive tone makes a big difference, said David Johns, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, who moderated the discussion.

"This is about individual relationships ... young people knowing we as a community are conspiring for their success," Johns said.

Wilda J. Robinson, a school board member in Allendale County, told the panel she was frustrated when she is told the situation in her rural county is hopeless.

Bud Ferillo, producer of the documentary "Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina's Rural Schools" said the Allendale community has failed to unite around the importance of education.

"They haven't learned how to come together and take what little resources are in the community and leverage them," Ferillo said. "They are so isolated and divided."

Robinson said in an interview the community needs to look forward. "Our culture has to be transformed, our community has to be transformed," she said. "We have to do it through the school system."

Also on the panel: Pam Lackey, president of AT&T South Carolina, who has spearheaded several education initiatives in the state; Kelvin Lemon, principal of Marlboro County High School; Percy Mack, a former Richland County superintendent; Inez Tenenbaum, a former superintendent of education; Dino Teppara, S.C. Department of Education's spokesman; and Lemuel Watson, the dean of the University of South Carolina College of Education.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.