Foes of school merger on alert as district buys 112 acres off U.S. 52

TASTE OF BYRDTOWN — Left to right, Trey and Eddie Boseman serve his world-famous Butt Bog at the Taste of Byrdtown Saturday night. Attendees enjoyed a side variety and fellowship. PHOTO BY GLENDA ATKINSON

By Bobby Bryant, Editor

The Darlington County School Board last week voted unanimously to buy about 112 acres of land off U.S. 52 – setting off alarms among some who fear the board is going to merge two historic schools and use that site for a new building to replace them.
At no time during the board’s May 9 discussion of the land purchase was the still-pending merger proposal mentioned. The exact location of the land was not mentioned during the board’s discussion, nor was the price.
The News & Press so far has been unable to confirm the location or price despite inquiries to the school district.
The school board is still considering a proposal to close St. John’s Elementary School in Darlington and Rosenwald Elementary/Middle School in Society Hill and merge the two into a new $30 million facility – presumably someplace more or less between Darlington and Society Hill. Opponents of the idea were already wary of any possible land purchases by the school district, and some merger foes went on alert on hearing about the board’s U.S. 52 land purchase.
“That’s it,” said Brian Gandy, who is director of the Darlington County Historical Commission and Museum and who wants the historic schools preserved. “I guarantee you that’s it.”
At a March 22 public hearing on the merger proposal, Gandy told the school board: “If I was a betting man, I would say y’all have already bought property or are negotiating property on (U.S.) 52.”
“I’m sorry I was right,” Gandy told the News & Press last week. “ … It’s going to be a hard reality.” Gandy said the land purchase is the other shoe dropping. “Every bit of this has already been decided,” he said.
But county Education Superintendent Tim Newman, school board members and school district officials have consistently said that no decisions have been made about going forward with the merger idea, and that there is no timetable for a decision. The board still has not taken a single vote on the merger idea.
Newman last week characterized the land purchase as a good business opportunity that will give the school district several options. Initially, he said, it will be used to consolidate some of the district’s maintenance operations.
“Not only is it property, it’s some buildings as well – what I would consider maintenance types of buildings,” Newman told the school board. “There is an office building that has seven or eight separate offices in it. There are bay areas for storage of petty equipment. There are fuel-tank enclosures.”
He compared it to other “contingency property” the district owns in various parts of the county. “The school district is always looking for property, what I call contingency property,” Newman said. One reason, he said, is to have options.
“Typically, if you build a new high school today, that takes 60 to 70 acres of property,” Newman told the board. “If you build a new middle school, that’s approximately 30 acres. … An elementary school, anywhere from 15 to 20 acres.” And prices are only going to rise, he said. “It’s always a good idea” to have contingency property, he said. “Having more property gives you a lot more options.”
The school district has held two public hearings on the proposal to merge SJE and Rosenwald, and reaction from residents was overwhelmingly negative.
Some board members have said the board should accept residents’ rejection of the idea; others have indicated the board must do what’s right for children in the long run by moving them out of aging buildings into a new, state-of-the-art facility that can be built with reserve funds the district already has on hand.
The Rosenwald Alumni Association has come out strongly against the merger idea. Asked for his reaction to the school board’s land purchase, association president William McCall told the News & Press that several things about the board’s action struck him as odd.
“Not one board member raised a question about the proposed school merger,” McCall said. “No one thought it seemed odd that the superintendent would be pitching this idea to the board at this precise time.”
“To the conscientious observer, it would appear that the board may be back-tracking to cover steps that had already been taken for the land purchase,” McCall said. “While transparency with the community should be of utmost concern, no one knows what decisions are made in the board’s executive sessions.
“When the board convenes for its regular monthly meeting, they go into a private executive session that is not open to the public or the press. Who knows what’s said and done there? Perhaps the thoughts of the vast majority are correct. It is possible that the deal is already done, and the board is simply trying to appease, or insult, an unsuspecting public.”
McCall added: “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often used a popular quote by William Cullen Bryant to call attention to the atrocities of injustice: ‘The truth crushed to earth shall rise again.’ Regardless of the tortuous path the board takes in this endeavor, the integrity of their actions will be called into question and could have an adverse impact on their relationship with the constituents who elected them.”

Author: Stephan Drew

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