Spearman reflects on her time as state superintendent as she prepares for retirement

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Published: Jan. 2, 2023 at 8:06 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In just over a week, South Carolina’s public schools will be under new leadership.

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

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

“It’s very difficult to walk away because I’ve been so involved in education policy my entire career, but it was time, and I’m at peace with it now and realize it’s time for someone else to put their mark on education in South Carolina,” she said in a recent interview.

For the last eight years, Spearman, a Republican, has guided state K-12 policy as South Carolina’s top educator, a position she held after previously serving as a music teacher and assistant principal in Saluda County and representing it in Columbia as a state representative.

That was followed by work as the state’s deputy superintendent of education and as the executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators before being elected state superintendent for the first time in 2014.

“There is no doubt that I was very well-prepared for this job,” Spearman said. “Didn’t plan it, never set it as a goal to be state superintendent, but I believe, in my faith, God was preparing me with all the different things and ideas so I would be prepared for this moment in time, and I’m thankful that I was.”

Midway through Spearman’s second term, schools nationwide began grappling with how to continue teaching students as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, peaked, waned, and repeated.

Spearman said the decisions they had to make during that period were among the most challenging of her tenure, along with her choices to take over the management of struggling districts or close schools around the state.

“My own high school was closed not long 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 decreasing enrollment and trouble finding teachers, combined with the proximity of other schools nearby, made the consolidations of 11 districts across South Carolina the right call.

If given the opportunity, Spearman said she wouldn’t choose to make any decisions differently during her two terms, but one was misunderstood, she believes: Her choice to not march alongside thousands of teachers outside the State House in 2019 as they demanded better working conditions.

That day, the former music teacher instead subbed in for an absent teacher in Lexington County.

“I don’t regret the decision,” she said. “I still believe that it should not 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 down schools for that purpose.”

She does believe it permanently altered her relationship and reputation with some teachers.

“You know, read social media. Some are saying, ‘Good riddance, glad she’s gone.’ That kind of hurts a little bit because I know how hard I’ve worked for teachers all my life and what we have been able to accomplish,” she said.

Among those accomplishments, Spearman counts getting the statewide starting salary for teachers up from less than $30,000 when she took office to now $40,000, though she believes it should still be higher.

Spearman also touts securing millions of dollars from lawmakers to replace most of the state’s aging school bus fleet, the nation’s oldest, after multiple buses caught fire with students on board.

In the last two years, she also persuaded the legislature to put hundreds of millions more dollars in the state budget to rebuild and renovate old school buildings in poorer and rural districts that lack the tax base to afford these upgrades on their own.

“I can say with no doubt that every decision I have made has been in the best interest of students,” Spearman said.

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

“I hope that folks with see that, that Molly, when she was state superintendent, she tried to put a real focus on the good things in public education and to give opportunities, more opportunities, for every student in this state, no matter where they live so they can be successful,” she said.

Now her career devoted to that cause comes to a close.

“Being able to walk into a school and see the kids and just see how wonderful these teachers, how hard they’re working and the accomplishments that they’re making with their students,” Spearman said when asked what she would miss most about being involved in education day to day. “It is a beautiful thing to see when you walk into a school and you can feel the love and the support and the happiness.”

Superintendent-elect Ellen Weaver will be sworn in on Jan. 11, during the governor’s inaugural ceremony at the State House.

Shortly after that, Spearman plans to get some rest and relaxation with her husband on a trip to Hawaii before starting work with the John Maxwell Leadership Foundation, where she will focus on developing leadership among young people.

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