Molly Spearman at Laing Middle School (Feb. 28, 2018 copy)

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman talks with students about a science fair project in the halls at Laing Middle School, which was recently recognized as the top middle school in the country for STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math). Paul Bowers/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's education chief is recommending forcing some of the state’s smallest and poorest school districts to consolidate.

The proposal by state Superintendent Molly Spearman mostly targets districts with fewer than 1,500 students, but also includes other troubled districts. 

In rural Bamberg, Barnwell, Clarendon, Florence and Hampton counties, she suggests merging the smallest districts with a neighboring district, to be controlled jointly by one school board and superintendent. 

“I do not think we can keep kicking this down the road,” she told a Senate panel Wednesday.

The nine districts she's identified initially are Allendale County, Bamberg 2 (Denmark-Olar), Barnwell 19 (Blackville-Hilda), Clarendon 2 (Manning), Florence 3 (Lake City), Florence 4 (Timmonsville), Hampton 2 (Estill), Lee and Williamsburg counties. Their student populations range between about 620 and 3,900 students.

The four-member panel agreed to include school consolidation as a priority among its eventual recommendations to the full Finance Committee.

Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, a retired principal, suggested offering districts incentives to consolidate, such as paying down debt or increasing their teacher's salaries.

"I think if we’re going to look at consolidation, it can be kind of difficult up front," he said.

The K-12 study panel was one of several created after the state Supreme Court ordered legislators in 2014 to fix the education system under a focus so that poor, rural students have an opportunity to succeed. The justices suggested at the time that legislators consider consolidation, which they've historically been reluctant to do.

The Legislature is no longer under court order to act. In a split decision last November, the justices ended their oversight of the decades-old schools case.

Under Spearman's plan, some districts could be consolidated in as soon as three years. She said teachers would be protected, but administrators would likely be cut. Any plan forcing consolidation would require legislators to pass a state law. 

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said his top priority for improving rural classrooms is hiring better teachers.

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"The one thing that works is a high-quality teacher in a classroom," he said.

Spearman called on senators to support pay raises. 

“Our rural areas have the least salaries,” she said. “That causes an extra problem for them because the good teachers that they have get recruited away for another $5,000 a year in a neighboring county.”

The raises would increase teacher salaries 2 percent statewide, starting July 1, and ensure no teacher earns less than $32,000. 

The state currently requires all districts to pay first-year teachers at least $30,113. But what districts actually pay varies widely depending on whether — and how much — they can supplement with local property taxes. Twenty poor, rural districts start teachers with salaries less than $32,000. In some districts, it takes teachers up to four years in the classroom to draw that salary.

The House's budget-writing committee included those pay bumps in its proposal for the 2018-19 fiscal year. The full House will debate the plan in mid-March.  

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.