COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina school districts could furlough teachers, skip some testing and increase class sizes under legislation given initial approval Thursday.
The measure advanced to the full House Ways and Means Committee would give districts temporary freedom from some state mandates, this school year and next.
State Schools Superintendent Jim Rex has urged legislators to pass it quickly, saying districts need the flexibility to keep classrooms running as they cope with more than $320 million in state budget cuts to the state's 85 school districts since July.
"This is an attempt to make the best of a bad situation," said Education Department spokesman Jim Foster. Particularly hard-hit districts may ask teachers to take a few days off without pay to prevent teacher layoffs, he said.
The proposal would specify that districts can require teachers to take up to five days of unpaid leave when students aren't in school - provided administrators also take the furlough - and negotiate salaries below the state minimum for retired teachers who have returned to the classroom.
It allows districts to forgo new textbooks; mandated student-to-teach ratios; some testing in grades one, two and nine; and end-of-year standardized testing in foreign languages. Districts can delay handing out teacher contracts for next school year by a month, to May 15. And it dismisses the biodiesel requirement, allowing the state to run school buses on regular diesel, which is currently cheaper.
"It's just another tool for districts to manage their revenue and direct more money to the classroom," said the bill's sponsor, House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont.
The proposal was introduced in the Senate earlier this week.
The House panel passed out a separate bill that would allow agencies to take employees' salaries into account when mandating unpaid leave. Many state agencies have required employees to take unpaid leave to deal with state budget cuts.
State law now requires agencies to make across-the-board furloughs of up to 10 days. Officials complained that treating all employees the same made no sense, because the mandate disproportionately affects low-paid workers who can least afford to have money taken out of their paychecks.
"If your higher-paid staff can afford it, they can be required to take a longer furlough," Cooper said.
The measure, which doesn't apply to public colleges or technical schools, keeps the maximum furlough at 10 days. But it allows employees that deal directly with customers to be exempt, such as workers behind the counter at Department of Motor Vehicles offices. It allows furloughs to be implemented by department or by pay scale. And if all employees in an agency are required to take unpaid leave, the agency head must also.