Newman: Merging schools isn’t a done deal
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
A proposal to merge two historic Darlington County schools is far from a “done deal,” no decisions have been made by the school board, and the school district has not purchased land for a new facility to replace the old ones, Education Superintendent Tim Newman says.
During public hearings last week on the possibility of merging St. John’s Elementary in Darlington and Rosenwald Elementary/Middle in Society Hill into a new school that would be built with about $30 million the district already has on hand, Newman denied residents’ claims that the district has already bought land for the project.
“We currently do not have property (for an SJE/Rosenwald merger) at this point in time,” Newman said. “We’ve looked at a lot of property throughout the area. But we currently do not have property.”
During a public hearing at SJE’s auditorium March 22, several residents who spoke to Newman and the school board said they had heard rumors, or knew for a fact, that the district had already purchased land for a new school to replace SJE and Rosenwald.
Others said they were convinced that the project was a “done deal,” that the district has an “agenda,” and that the key decisions had already been made, even though the school board has never taken a vote on anything related to the merger issue.
Newman said district officials and the board are only “in the initial stages of this conversation.” Nearly all the board members attended both hearings.
Residents who spoke at the March 22 public hearing inside St. John’s auditorium were almost totally opposed to the idea of a merger, suspicious of the school district’s motives, and suspicious that these hearings were just a smokescreen to make it appear the district cared about residents’ views. About 60 people attended the SJE hearing and about 12 spoke.
“All I’ve heard tonight is money,” said C.C. Kirby, who argued that the school district was forgetting the importance of history. “ … I don’t have a problem with building a new school if it’s needed. … (But) what happens to the buildings left behind? And that’s a big issue.”
“You really don’t have a lot of skin in the game like we do, like the people who live here (around St. John’s),” Kirby told Newman and the board. “ … You probably don’t have the same heartfelt feelings that we have” for this place.
“I think it’s going to happen,” he said. “I think you’re going to lose the school. That’s going to happen. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Josh Byram, who organized an online petition to spare St. John’s, also spoke to Newman and the board. “St. John’s Elementary is not just a school,” he said. “It’s the heart and soul of Darlington.”
Newman has argued that students who attend St. John’s and Rosenwald are not getting the same opportunities as those who attend newer schools just because of the physical limits of the aging facilities. Byram argued that in fact, St. John’s students are getting a “richer” experience than others because of the school’s rich history.
“These students are able to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Byram said. “They’re able to be part of history. They’re not just bystanders in history.” He also said Darlington can’t afford to lose more of itself, can’t afford to see “these magnificent buildings” possibly becoming just more vacant structures.
Another speaker, Rebecca Isgett, a school district employee, also wondered about what would happen to the empty SJE buildings if the school is closed and merged into an entirely new school. She said it sounded as if the district would be counting on the buildings being redeveloped by private companies.
She also objected to some photos of SJE that Newman presented to the school board March 14 and again presented to the audience at the hearing last week. “Of course these hallways and classrooms look like crap!” she said. “The buildings are 200 years old! … But we love it anyway.” (In fact, the buildings now in use at SJE are not 200 years old. The school’s claim to “200 years of education” stems from the fact that some type of educational institution has operated at that site for more than 200 years.)
Brian Gandy, director of the Darlington County Historical Commission and Museum, spoke at the SJE hearing in opposition to the merger idea. “If I was a betting man, I would say y’all have already bought property or are negotiating property on (U.S.) 52,” Gandy said as the audience applauded.
Gandy said the school board and school district likely know little about the deep history of SJE. “We cannot put a price on what we teach our children,” he said. Gandy said we need to move away from the attitude of “It’s disposable, it’s interchangeable” toward an attitude of embracing a place’s historic worth.
Other speakers warned that displacing SJE and Rosenwald students soon after two years of COVID fears and disruptions would be harmful. One speaker said, “You never talk about the kids. You talk about the numbers.”
Another speaker told Newman that what happened here probably wasn’t going to be his problem, because she said Newman likely would be moving on in a few years to further his career. “There’s an agenda,” she said of the merger talks. “I think it’s a done deal.”
The final speaker at the SJE hearing was Darlington City Council member Bryant Gardner, who talked about the emotional disruption that a merger of the elementary schools could cause. “We’ve already lost Brunson-Dargan. We’ve lost Spring. We’ve lost (the original high school) St. John’s. Are we going to lose another school?”
Two days later, on March 24, at a second public hearing on the issue, this one held at Rosenwald in Society Hill, the atmosphere was less hostile, the speakers less suspicious of the district’s motives and goals. About 75 people attended this hearing.
A surprise guest among the speakers was Col. Christopher Williamson, commander of the S.C. Highway Patrol, who attended Rosenwald Elementary and graduated from the now-closed Rosenwald High. He said both schools were key to his success in later life.
“Other people might not stand up and fight as hard as we will,” said Williamson. “They don’t know what this community means to us. This community means something to us. This is what we have fought for. This is all we know, all of our life. We just want to be heard, and want you all to know – please don’t take this for granted. Don’t take this lightly. Because we don’t want to be looked at as a community where people appear to look at us as though we are inferior and others may be superior. We don’t do that.”
“It would bother me to have been a success, coming from this community and these schools, and have something going on … and not come back and support the community (that) has supported me all these years,” he said to applause.
Williamson continued: “The matter that we stand here tonight – it’s not about a fuss or fight – it’s about making sure that you’re heard, that you’re treated properly, you’re being given proper treatment and consideration.” He said he knows that tough decisions are going to have to be made, “But we made those decisions back in 1982, when the (Rosenwald) high school was shut down.”
At least this time, Williamson said, “It’s not just Rosenwald Elementary. You’re looking at other schools as well. But in our community, we’re asking, at some point, why (does) it have to be always our community? Shut some other place down, take that money, and build a new school right here in Society Hill.” The crowd applauded him.
Other speakers included pastors and a resident who drives her child from Darlington to Society Hill every day so he can attend Rosenwald, where he thrives with the smaller classes there. Another speaker said all this brought her back to the loss of Rosenwald High: “This is not new to us. This is not the first time we’ve been driven over by a freight train. … You’ve never given the students at Rosenwald what they rightfully deserve, which is a quality education. We were always given the least amount of funding.”
Society Hill Mayor Dwayne Duke energized the crowd with an impassioned defense of Rosenwald. “This is blessed ground,” he said. “They’re not gonna do this. They can’t do this. … When I walk in these halls, I feel something. You hear me? I feel something! I don’t see (those) nice, pretty desks and all that stuff, but you know what? I feel something! … I feel those students that came out of here!”
After Newman had already called the end of the hearing at 7:30 p.m. as scheduled by the school district, Darlington resident Mike Beckham tried to ask Newman if the district had taken out an option on land to build the “merged” school. Newman declined to answer, saying the hearing had ended.