A new year is a great time to pause, think and resolve to do better in the year to come.
That applies to those of us seeking to lose a few pounds, and it also applies to leaders in state and local governments. With that in mind, here are some actions we think those leaders should take to make South Carolina and its communities healthier, more livable and prosperous.
Charleston County and all of South Carolina have some really good schools, staffed with great teachers, turning out well-educated students. But we also have some awful schools, some teachers who aren’t up to the job, and far too many children who finish high school unprepared for work or college. And we’re having a hard time getting enough teachers — not just great teachers, but any teachers — to fill our classrooms. We won’t fix all that in one year, but we have to make significant progress every year until we do fix it.
Charleston School officials, teachers and parents need to listen to each other, work together, make minor adjustments as necessary and work out the kinks in the district’s Mission Critical package of plans to provide better educational opportunities to all students.
The Legislature needs to quickly enact the House-passed bill that aims to attract and retain top teachers — with fewer standardized tests, tuition enticements and daily student-free periods — and increase the chance that those teachers will have supportive principals, superintendents and school board members by making it easier for the state to intervene when districts fail to provide kids the education they need. South Carolina should use other states’ experiences to improve the curriculum and teaching models, and improve and increase our efforts to help parents prepare their infants and toddlers for a lifetime of learning. And it needs to follow through on the promises to pay teachers competitive wages.
True Home Rule
While the Legislature passed the Home Rule Act in 1975, cities and counties still find themselves hamstrung by state law in all sorts of ways, from raising revenue to address flooding to making sure cruise ship passengers contribute to the city to annexing properties surrounded on all sides by a city or town. Worse, legislators keep adding new restrictions and mandates every year, making it increasingly impossible for the people we elect to run our cities and counties to do their jobs. This allows Upstate legislators to set the rules for Lowcountry communities (and vice versa), and distracts legislators from doing the work we elect them to do. It would be an improvement if the Legislature would stop this, but we really need them to roll back the mandates and restrictions, and trust voters to decide what they want their communities to look like.
Lawmakers have promised to decide this year whether to sell Santee Cooper, turn over its management to a private company or keep it in state hands. What they need to do is make a smart decision. That’s not a given, because a lot of people claim they already know the best decision, even though they have no actual information.
The S.C. Department of Administration is reviewing bids to purchase or manage the state-owned utility, along with the utility’s own plan to pay down its remaining nuclear debt, keep down rates and continue to provide reliable electricity to much of rural South Carolina. Once officials pick the best offers to buy and manage the utility, legislators need to set aside their philosophical preconceptions about whether the state should own a utility and make a decision based on the long-term projections for all three options.
The Post and Courier’s Joseph Cranney spent much of 2019 documenting deep flaws in South Carolina’s judiciary, from a disciplinary system that hasn’t seen fit to discipline a single circuit court judge in 20 years, despite more than 1,000 complaints, to magistrate courts filled with judges who are appointed entirely on the basis of politics and aren’t expected to know even the basics about the laws they apply (and often don’t). In 2020, the Legislature and the Supreme Court need to address these flaws, by lifting the secrecy from the disciplinary system and reforming the political appointment system for both magistrates and regular judges.
State and local governments have made some progress toward addressing long-standing flood spots and the reality of slowly rising seas, but this isn’t the year to take the foot off the pedal. The State Infrastructure Bank should help the city of Charleston with its $60 million effort to raise the low battery by about 3 feet, and the city should partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to map out similar projects around the peninsula. The city also needs to make significant progress installing solutions in West Ashley’s Church Creek drainage basin, and other coastal communities also should work on reducing their risk from future floods.
A new boom in plastics is under way, and those tiny beads at the core of it all are a bane to our coastal waters. Nurdle shippers who couldn’t export their glut of natural-gas-derived pellets from the Gulf fast enough have shifted to Charleston and Savannah, and the plastic pellets that clog up the guts of birds and marine creatures have been showing up on beaches around Charleston Harbor since summer. The company that took responsibility for the spill and paid to clean it up only suffered a little public shaming. The state should have handed down a stiff fine, and the Ports Authority should have immediately taken action to prevent nurdles from getting in the water. That didn’t happen. State lawmakers need to get ahead of this one, state officials need to stop recruiting polluters to the state, and as much as we dislike this solution, environmental groups probably need to go to court.
Something’s got to give. Carpooling or taking an Uber, a bus, a boat, a bicycle or your own two feet will help, but local governments across the Lowcountry and state agencies need to do everything they can to unclog major roads. In 2016, the average commute time in the Charleston metro area was pegged at 25.1 minutes. Ha! That seems awfully low even four years ago. Anyone who drives more than a few miles to work every day knows that too many worker bees spend more than an hour in their cars. By 2028, the tri-county region will boast about 1 million people. The roughly 560,000 vehicles now on our roads are projected to grow by 40 percent over the next three decades, according to Charleston Chamber of Commerce and DMV. Some building and road improvements are in order, but we can’t build ourselves out of this problem. Individuals, businesses and local governments all need to invest in alternative solutions.