‘No timetable’ for a decision on merging schools

By Bobby Bryant, Editor

There’s “no timetable” for a vote on merging two historic Darlington County schools, officials said after the county School Board discussed the idea again April 11, but went home without taking a vote.
“No decision has been made on this at all; we’ve just been gathering information,” board Chairman Warren Jeffords said of the proposal to close St. John’s Elementary School in Darlington, close Rosenwald Elementary/Middle School in Society Hill and merge them into a new $30 million facility using money the district already has in reserve.
“We appreciate the passion everyone has – both sides, really, pro and con,” Jeffords said. “Our job is to do what’s best for our children. … Whatever decision we make, there’ll be some people who are happy and some people won’t be.”
If the schools are closed, “We’ll need the communities’ help” to “repurpose” the buildings, Jeffords said. He added: “This (decision) may not happen anytime soon. It may be several months. … There’s no timetable right now.”
At a work session two weeks earlier, the board had an unusually frank 45-minute discussion about the merger idea. At that meeting, the board’s frustration was obvious and members seemed to be leaning toward dropping the idea after an overwhelmingly negative response from the Darlington and Society Hill communities.
At the board’s regular meeting last week, the discussion was much shorter and the comments were more guarded. Two board members – Leigh Anne Kelley, who represents Darlington, and Lucas Reed, who represents Society Hill – did not comment during this discussion, and a third member, Dr. Thelma Dawson, was not present.
The remaining board members mostly restated points they had made previously, and emphasized that renovating the schools was not an option because it would be far more expensive than building a new facility.
“I think the general consensus of this board … (is) renovation of St. John’s, as an elementary school, is not on the table,” said board member Wanda Hassler. “It is cost-prohibitive.”
“How can we best serve the students of Darlington County?” she asked. “That’s what we are tasked with here. And also in conjunction with our fiduciary responsibility of how do we manage the funds that we have.” Hassler said merging St. John’s and Rosenwald would save the school district $2 million a year in operating costs – a factor the board will have to consider.
Board member Jamie Morphis said: “Our thought process, as a board, has got to be the entire district and what the needs are. While we certainly respect St. John’s as well as Rosenwald … we have to consider the big picture.”
“It’s not that we wouldn’t want to keep St. John’s and/or Rosenwald – we’d love to (keep) the oldest school in the state (St. John’s); that is pretty neat … we’ve got to look at the total picture and try to make the best decision on behalf of the students.”
Education Superintendent Tim Newman said everyone has to face the fact that both buildings are aging. “It’s not being negative about the buildings, it’s the reality. Every year for the past three years, we’ve had significant repairs at St. John’s.” These were problems that “happened suddenly,” Newman said, though he didn’t elaborate on what the problems were.
“Rest assured that the buildings will be maintained,” Newman said. “But the issues aren’t going away.”
Two residents signed up to speak to the board last week about the merger issue. Rose Pruitt of Darlington noted that St. John’s is on the National Register of Historic Places, “and Rosenwald would probably qualify as well.” Mike Beckham of Darlington told the board: “Think of the people, think of the feelings, think of the taxpayers as well.”

Author: Stephan Drew

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