Leaders of House, Senate say Legislature will ignore deadlines set by state's high court

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The leaders of South Carolina's House and Senate said Tuesday the Legislature will ignore deadlines set by the state's high court and continue its own path for fixing public schools.

A letter delivered to Chief Justice Jean Toal accuses the state Supreme Court of unconstitutionally usurping the legislative process.

"This court has gone too far," reads the letter signed by House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman. They also called justices' order last week arbitrary and impractical.

It laid out a timeline for responding to their ruling last November that the state's education system fails to provide students in poor, rural districts the opportunity to succeed. The justices told legislators and district officials to collectively fix the problem.

Many legislators complained last fall's order gave no clear instructions or timeline.

Last week's follow-up, requested by school districts that initially sued in 1993, requires the Legislature to propose a plan by Feb. 1. The suing districts would have until March 1 to respond. The justices would then review and decide whether the plan's adequate.

"After spending two decades pondering the constitutionality of our existing system, the court expects the General Assembly to create a plan in a matter of months," the leaders wrote.

They also complained the process essentially gives suing districts veto power over the Legislature.

Lucas and Leatherman say the chambers will continue to work on a solution through study committees they formed earlier this year, and justices can weigh in when the Legislature is done.

"An arbitrary timeline set by a court under an unconstitutional directive will not deter us," they wrote.

The districts' attorney, Carl Epps, suggested the leaders "take a deep breath" in responding to the order. He said he believes 14 months gives legislators reasonable time to respond. But if they disagree, they can appeal.

The task force Lucas created in January includes representatives of rural schools. Lucas said districts' June motion requesting the timeline showed school officials weren't working with legislators in good faith.

They can't continue to sit on the panel unless Epps asks the high court to rescind its timeline, Lucas wrote.

Setting his own deadline for a response, Lucas gave Epps until Monday before school officials would be removed from the study panel.

Excluding educators from discussions on how to reform education is not a good move, Epps said, adding he's not opposed to seeking an adjusted schedule.

"I'm certainly willing to listen," he said. "But at the end of the day, we have to have timelines."

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