McMaster at Holly Hill school

Gov. Henry McMaster and his wife, Peggy, greet members of a mentoring program at Holly Hill-Roberts Middle School in Holly Hill on Oct. 30, 2017. Seanna Adcox/Staff

HOLLY HILL — Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday he's touring rural school districts to better understand what it will take to attract and keep the quality teachers that students need to keep South Carolina's economy strong.

McMaster launched his eight-district tour in tiny Orangeburg 3, one of the districts that sued South Carolina for adequate education funding 24 years ago, commonly called the Abbeville lawsuit. The Legislature has been under state Supreme Court order for three years to fix an education system the justices said did not provide minimum education opportunities to poor, rural children.

"The key to the whole thing seems to be good, strong teachers that stay — that is, a stable force of committed, good teachers," McMaster said after meeting with educators and local leaders in the district that includes Holly Hill and Elloree. "We’re going to have to get teachers to stay in the rural areas. If the rural areas get behind, all of us get behind."

Asked whether that will require paying teachers more money, McMaster said he's not sure.

"That’s the question I want to answer with a lot of advice and help from the people who are in that arena and know what works and what doesn’t," he said after touring Holly Hill-Roberts Middle School. 

Orangeburg 3 Superintendent Jesulon Gibbs-Brown, who was a student there when the lawsuit was filed, said larger districts can pay starting teachers salaries up to $7,000 more a year than her district can afford. Recruiting quality teachers and administrators must involve encouraging local students to "come back and give back," she said.

District leaders said they were happy to see McMaster, the first governor in memory to visit the district.

Hopefully, Gibbs-Brown said, "he'll feel much more enlightened." 

The Republican governor, who is seeking his first full term in 2018, said he expects to offer proposals to the Legislature after he wraps up his tour. 

Both the House and Senate have created panels to again study the issue they've studied for years. 

McMaster did offer one possible recommendation: "We’re going to have to consolidate some districts," he said, without providing details. 

The Abbeville lawsuit was initially filed in November 1993 by 40 of the state’s then-91 districts. Orangeburg County's eight school districts have since merged to three. Orangeburg 3's six schools have fewer than 3,000 students total. Nearly 90 percent of them live in poverty. 

McMaster said his overarching goal is to ensure South Carolina's graduates can fill the jobs of businesses already here and those the state is trying to recruit. 

"I want to do all I can to understand exactly what we need to do to educate our young people better, stronger, quicker for the jobs that are out there now and for tomorrow to be sure we don’t get behind," he said. 

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Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.