Sumter And Williamsburg Schools: A Tale Of Two School Districts

SC Superintendent Molly Spearman

By Barney Blakeney

Things may or may not be getting better for schools in South Carolina’s infamous ‘Corridor of Shame’ since the state’s Supreme Court last December relinquished oversight of the approximately 24-year legal struggle to insure quality education to the predominantly Black students of its 36 school districts. In recent weeks Sumter County School District officials announced closure of several schools in Sumter County and S.C. Department of Education officials announced takeover of schools in Williamsburg County.

In Sumter County local school district officials will close several predominantly Black schools – F.J. DeLaine Elementary, Mayewood Middle, Rafting Creek Elementary and Ebenezer Middle schools – over the objection from residents and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. Natalia Garzon, director of Media Relations for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. in a letter to the Interim Superintendent Dr. Debbie Hamm and the members of the School Board, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and the Family Unit, a Sumter non-profit charitable organization, expressed concerns about the rushed and non-transparent process that has surrounded the proposals to close schools attended by predominately Black students in rural Sumter by the end of the 2018.

According to LDF and the Family Unit, the School District’s proposal to close schools is not based on a meaningful analysis of the impacts on the students, their families, and the surrounding communities in which those students and families reside and the schools are located.  Indeed, officials did not even attempt to hear from community members or undertake any studies of the consequences of the closures, which still have not been made public, until many months after targeting predominately Black schools for closure, Garzon said.

“Despite fierce and overwhelming public opposition, the Sumter County School District in South Carolina is finalizing plans to close rural schools, attended by predominately Black students, in an attempt to address the School District’s unexplained $6.2 million-dollar deficit.” Garzon said.

In Willliamsburg County a similar scenario is unfolding, but with mixed emotions from constituents. State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman has declared a state of emergency in the Williamsburg County School District due to financial mismanagement, systemic programmatic issues, and poor student academic performance.

“I believe that education is an issue that is best served on the local level with input from students, parents, and the school community. However, when a district has continuous financial and programmatic issues that put its students at risk, as state superintendent, I am compelled to take action,” said Spearman. “The management decisions of the Williamsburg County School District have led to a high financial risk rating, years of deficiencies in special education and other integral programs, and a loss of hundreds of thousands of federal dollars meant to serve our most vulnerable students. With these issues in mind, I am declaring a state of emergency and will take over direct management of the Williamsburg County School District.”

Hollywood Pastor Rev. Keith Hunter, whose family still resides there, said takeover of the county’s schools is a sad situation that was avoidable. Over the past several decades the district’s leadership allowed dysfunction to ferment as the needs of students went unmet. “It’s terrible, but at the same time, it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Hunter said. “It’s an opportunity for young people to elect qualified, competent school officials.”

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