Spearman reflects on her time as State Superintendent as she prepares for retirement

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) — In just over a week, South Carolina’s public schools will be under new management.

Republican Ellen Weaver will succeed Molly Spearman, who is retiring after opting not to seek re-election for a third term last fall, as superintendent of education.

Spearman, who would have turned 73 at the end of that term if she had been re-elected, said she is keen to spend more time with family, particularly with her grandchildren.

“It’s very difficult to walk away because I’ve been so involved with education policy throughout my career, but it was time and I now agree with that and recognize that it’s time someone else in education.” South Carolina is making its mark,” she said in a recent interview.

For the past eight years, Spearman, a Republican, has led state K-12 policy as South Carolina’s top educator, a position she held having previously worked as a music teacher and assistant principal in Saluda County and there in Columbia had represented as state representative.

This was followed by serving as the state’s assistant inspector of education and executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators before being elected state inspector for the first time in 2014.

“There is no doubt that I was very well prepared for this job,” Spearman said. “I didn’t plan it, never set it as my goal to be head of state, but I believe God has prepared me in my faith with all the different things and ideas so that I’m prepared for this moment and I’m grateful that it was me.”

In the midst of Spearman’s second term, schools across the country began to grapple with how to continue teaching their students as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, peaked, waned and repeated.

Spearman said the decisions they had to make during that time were among the most challenging of their tenure, along with their decisions to take over administration of troubled counties or close schools across the state.

“My own high school closed shortly after I graduated, so I know how much people love their school and what it means to a community,” she said.

But Spearman stands by those decisions, saying obstacles like declining enrollment and trouble finding teachers, combined with the proximity of other nearby schools, made consolidating 11 districts across South Carolina the right choice.

Given the opportunity, Spearman said she wouldn’t make any decisions differently during her two terms in office, but one thing she says was misunderstood: her decision not to march in front of the State House with thousands of teachers in 2019 because she did a better job demanded conditions.

On that day, the former music teacher was instead filling in for an absent Lexington County teacher.

“I don’t regret the decision,” she said. “I still feel it shouldn’t have happened during school hours and I told the group I would be there if it happened after hours, but I would not support closing schools for this purpose .”

She believes it has permanently changed their relationship and reputation with some teachers.

“You know, read social media. Some say, ‘Good release, glad it’s gone.’ It hurts a bit because I know how hard I’ve worked for teachers my whole life and what we were able to achieve,” she said.

Spearman cites among those accomplishments that she raised the national starting salary for teachers from less than $30,000 when she took office to $40,000 now, although she believes it should still be higher.

Spearman is also campaigning to secure millions of dollars from lawmakers to replace most of the state’s aging school bus fleet, the oldest in the country, after several buses with students on board caught fire.

In the past two years, she has also persuaded lawmakers to inject hundreds of millions more dollars into the state budget to rebuild and renovate old school buildings in poorer and rural counties that lack the tax base to afford these upgrades on their own.

“I can say without a doubt that every decision I made was in the best interests of the students,” Spearman said.

Ultimately, the outgoing superintendent said she is most proud of providing more opportunities for South Carolina’s K-12 students.

“I hope people see that when Molly was head of state, she tried to really focus on the good things about public education and giving every student in this state opportunities to have more opportunities, no matter where they live to be successful,” she said.

Now her career devoted to this cause is coming to an end.

“Going into a school and seeing the kids and just seeing how wonderful these teachers are, how hard they work and what achievements they make with their students,” Spearman said when asked what she would miss the most Involved in education every day. “It’s nice to see when you walk into a school and feel the love, support and happiness.”

Superintendent-elect Ellen Weaver is inaugurated Jan. 11 during the governor’s inauguration ceremony at the State House.

Shortly thereafter, Spearman plans to take a trip to Hawaii with her husband for some rest and relaxation before beginning work at the John Maxwell Leadership Foundation, where she will focus on developing leadership skills among young people.

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