Educators discuss issues with legislators

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

COUNTY — School District of Pickens County officials met Thursday with members of the Pickens County Legislative Delegation to discuss a variety of education issues that may emerge when the 2017 General Assembly session begins next month.

But Pickens County school superintendent Danny Merck, who is also a member of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, told delegation members that — unlike previous years — the issues he is presenting aren’t money-related.

“I’m in Columbia all the time with the EOC, and I understand the issues,” Merck said. “There’s nothing on this sheet of paper about money.”

Instead, the issues Merck brought before the delegation during their annual breakfast meeting at the district office were ones he said will require changes in legislation. The issues included the accountability system, featuring teacher evaluations; changing the start-up date for schools to earlier in August, rather than the third week; and a reduction in testing.

As far as teacher evaluation, Merck said he recommends a point system, rather than an A-F grade.

“We want to protect a teacher’s privacy,” Merck said. “When we grew up, it was about achievement. Now, it’s about growth — of the teacher and the student.”

The testing of students is something Merck said the EOC plans to recommend “a reduction to the fullest extent possible.”

“We support reduced testing in South Carolina but, in order to do so, you’re going to have to change the law,” he said. ” (Advanced Placement) and College Board are going to test the same time every year. Every school in South Carolina wants to finish the first semester prior to Christmas so kids can go on to college.”

The Pickens County superintendent also requested that the delegation work toward changing the start date of schools.

“Probably, in my 26 years in education, I think the more we can minimize summer loss, which is the amount of time kids are away from school, you’re going to help them the most without a restrictive start date,” Merck said. “The less gap you have in the summer, the better off poor kids are.”

State Sen. Thomas Alexander, who represents Oconee and a portion of Pickens County, said he understands the concerns over the start date for schools.

“I hear what you’re saying — I hear from parents and it’s not just a coastal issue,” Alexander said. “I hear from folks who do like the later start date.”

Alexander said it appears the movement toward changing the state superintendent of education from an elected position to a cabinet position appointed by the governor is “heading that way.” But the senator added, “That is a decision the people of the state will make.”

The Walhalla native added that school safety will also “be at the forefront” of legislators following the tragic Townville Elementary School shootings in September that killed one student and injured another student and a teacher.

State Senator-elect Rex Rice, who will enter office in January, said education is the one area in the state that has changed a lot in the time he was away following 16 years of service in the State House of Representatives.

“I’m serving on the education committee, and I’m excited about that,” Rice said.

State Rep. Davey Hiott of Pickens said Pickens County “does a great job” when it comes to education.

“Everywhere we go, we don’t have a problem talking about education, because we feel we do it the best,” Hiott said.

Hiott added he agrees with the concerns over testing.

“I’ve always thought we over tested too much,” he said.

State Rep. Gary Clary, who represents the Clemson area, said he is very pleased with the steps being taken to keep Pickens County in the position it’s in educationally. Although he adds “you can never be satisfied,” the retired judge said he is passionate about legislation requiring dyslexia screening for kindergarten through third-grade students.

“Students in colleges and universities who want to become teachers would be required to take a course on reading disorders,” Clary said.

State Rep. Neal Collins of Easley said Pickens County is fortunate to not only have Merck on the Education Oversight Committee but also Easley businessman David Whittemore on the State Board of Education.

“Pickens County is well represented across the state in education,” Collins said. “I’m looking forward to working with everybody.”

Merck said he hopes the legislature will continue its excellent relationship with the EOC, saying that organization “needs to remain intact to have a voice in the general assembly and provide a voice in public education.”