If South Carolina is to achieve meaningful reform for its struggling public school systems, the time for simply talking about is over, an influential state lawmaker said this week.

“When we start as a state Legislature diving into the business of running a school district back home in a local community, that has the potential to upset people and to concern people, but there’s really only two ways to do this, to me: We either have a responsibility as state lawmakers to provide a high-quality public education to our youngest citizens, or it’s not our responsibility and it belongs to the locals. The reality of it is, we have it,” state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach and Education Committee chairman, told stakeholders during a daylong meeting on Monday. “The General Assembly is constitutionally mandated to provide that education.”

Over the summer, a subcommittee will work through the most controversial aspect of a massive reform plan — governance and accountability, including conditions under which state officials can usurp the authority of local school boards in the name of boosting student achievement.

It’s a concept that’s endorsed by state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.

“This has been a real focus for us at the department, to change this long-term paradigm that’s been there where we’ve allowed school districts to not do well and we’ve just kept sending more money to help, and we haven’t had a whole lot to show for it,” she said.

Hembree hopes the subcommittee’s work will clear the way for a bill to be filed in January, when the General Assembly convenes for the back half of its biennial session.

“This part of the bill deals with governance, it deals with removal of school board members, it deals with interventions by the Department of Education in schools and districts that are failing, and typically chronically failing, and these are very touchy subjects, there’s no doubt about it,” Hembree said. “We’re just going to have to be bold and look at systems we’ve created, and when they’re failing, now it’s our responsibility to do something about those systems, and that’s really what this part of the bill deals with and I recognize it’s not going to be politically popular in a lot of districts, I realize it’s not going to be easy, I realize there’s going to be people that object to this kind of work, but it’s our responsibility.”

Currently, three districts are under management by the state: Allendale County Schools, Florence County School District 4 (Timmonsville) and Williamsburg County Schools.

Ceding authority back to locally elected officials without setting criteria such as financial accountability, targeted student achievement goals and adequate resources to ensure long-term sustainability would be reckless, Spearman said — and it’s why she’ll continue to favor consolidation for some of the state’s smallest and most underperforming districts.

A day after she spoke with lawmakers, Spearman and her staff hosted a meeting with representatives from eight districts – each with 1,500 students or less – to speak with them about merging.

“I have not used that option to force a consolidation, because I think it does work best if folks come to the table, but I’m willing to do that if we need to as we move forward in this state,” Spearman said.

Hembree, who in March visited McCormick as part of a statewide, four-city listening tour, said using financial tools to buttress low-performing districts is no longer viable.

“We don’t have a constitutional responsibility to provide good city government,” he said. But “we have this burden that we have to carry out, and if we have adopted a model that is failing to work, that model being a locally elected school board, that responsibility falls back on us.

“And we can’t just shirk it off and say, ‘We’re going to send you a little more money and hope it goes away,’ or ‘We’re going to build you a new gymnasium, and that’ll make everything better,’ and then y’all can have your control and continue what you’ve been doing and watch the kids chronically fail and in many of these districts, they have been failing generation upon generation.”

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.