Public hearings will focus on merging St. John’s, Rosenwald
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
The Darlington County School District plans two public hearings this week on the idea of merging Darlington’s St. John’s Elementary and Society Hill’s Rosenwald Elementary/Middle into a new school.
On Tuesday, March 22, the district planned a hearing at 6 p.m. at the St. John’s auditorium. On Thursday, March 24, a hearing is set at 6 p.m. at Rosenwald’s multi-purpose room.
District officials will outline the possibilities of a merger and take comments from the public about the idea. Some comments are already coming in: An online petition to spare the historic St. John’s was approaching 1,500 signatures. The Rosenwald Alumni Association has sent the district a detailed letter arguing why Rosenwald should be left alone. And Society Hill Mayor Dwayne Duke made an impassioned defense of Rosenwald before the county school board March 14.
Duke, the only person who signed up to speak to the board on the merger issue, pointed to the approximately $35 million in capital funds that the school district now has available to put into an entirely new school costing about $30 million.
“Why couldn’t we take that money, divide it up between the two schools, upfit those schools, retrofit those schools to be up to par?” Duke asked. “Instead of building a school and having all our schools in disarray, moving. …”
“Our elementary school is the only thing we’ve got” in terms of educational facilities, Duke told the board. “We don’t need another empty building. … I just can’t imagine us doing this to our poor little town of Society Hill. … Please don’t take our school from us.”
County Education Superintendent Tim Newman and the school board discussed aspects of a merger for about two and a half hours at last week’s regular monthly board meeting. But no votes were taken, no decisions were made, and no board members tipped their hand as to how they might vote if it does come to a vote.
At February’s board meeting, Newman asked the board to consider closing St. John’s Elementary – the site of some type of educational institution for 200 years – closing Rosenwald, and merging the two into a new school the district can build with money already on hand. Officials emphasized that no tax increase would be needed and voters would not need to approve a bond issue.
At the board’s March 14 meeting, Newman took the board through a slide show comparing SJE and Rosenwald to newer schools in the district. He stressed the schools are safe, but said the age and physical limitations of SJE and Rosenwald are blocking students from the same kinds of opportunities that students at newer schools – such as the new elementaries in Hartsville, Darlington and Lamar – are getting.
The board also received a breakdown on what it would cost to renovate SJE to current standards, including Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Such a renovation would be a very long and very expensive project, board members were told, and because renovations would tend to eat up classroom space, an additional classroom building would be needed to keep classroom space roughly what it is now.
Total cost of renovating all the buildings at SJE, plus the cost of building an addition for classrooms, was estimated at $37 million, probably closer to $40 million, Newman said. No estimate was given for the cost of similar renovations at Rosenwald, but Newman said the issues there would be much the same as the issues at SJE. If it only cost half as much to renovate the smaller Rosenwald, the school district would be looking at a $60 million cost for a Rosenwald/SJE renovation project, compared to about $30 million to build an entirely new school.
How could the district build a new school without going to the taxpayers for more money? Because the district has $35.6 million in capital funds available for such a project, board members were told. That includes $19 million in capital funds reserve and $16 million in bond funds available for building projects.
“We have to be focused on what’s best for our children,” Newman said. “We have absolute proof, by the three new elementary schools that we’ve built, that our children can have a better environment. And three schools are experiencing that now. As a parent, I would really have to question why my child can’t experience the same.”
Since the district has the money, and the students have the need, the district should take this opportunity, Newman said.
The Rosenwald Alumni Association has sent a letter to the school district arguing against the idea of a merger. The full text of the group’s letter appears on Page 2. The group’s main points include:
Loss of history. “Rosenwald represents more than a name on a building. It represents our history and culture,” the group wrote. “It represents a century-old story and struggle of educating black students. We have a unique opportunity and obligation to preserve the legacy of Rosenwald schools through our elementary school. We cannot simply erase the history of a people by merging schools.”
Additional strain on students. The school board’s first discussion of the idea, at February’s board meeting, seemed to assume that a new school would be built between Darlington and Society Hill. The Alumni Association does not believe that’s necessarily going to happen.
The group wrote: “ … The reality of it is that parents in Darlington are not going to support the idea of putting their children on buses and sending them out to Mechanicsville or Dovesville. It leads some to believe that this particular part of the idea is disingenuous and would be much more of a significant disadvantage to Rosenwald students and parents. … Merging the two schools would require very young children to get up much earlier in the morning and catch buses to send them to Darlington.”
A blow to Society Hill. “When Rosenwald High School students were bused to St. John’s High School in 1982, it left a vacant campus that has been unoccupied and undeveloped for 40 years,” the group wrote. “This proposed merger could very well mean another closed property in Society Hill. Every town should have an institution of education regardless of the number of students enrolled. A thriving academic center has the potential to attract families and contribute to the town’s economic development.”
During last week’s school board meeting, board member Leigh Anne Kelley said she was surprised that only Society Hill’s mayor had signed up to speak to the board about the issue, considering how much debate it has gotten on social media. A number of people attended the meeting, apparently drawn by the merger issue, but no one else spoke to the board.
“I’m a little disappointed that there weren’t more people here tonight to voice their opinion, because there has been a lot of loud voices on social media,” she said.