School board casts controversial vote, pleasing some, angering others

By Stephan Drew, Editor

On December 12th, the Darlington County School District (DCSD) Board cast a 5-2 vote to progress with the controversial move of consolidating two Darlington County schools and building a new  facility to house the venture. The project will cost approximately $30 million and is expected to be completed in time for the 2025-2026 school  year. The schools affected by the vote are Rosenwald Elementary School in Society Hill and St. Johns Elementary School in Darlington.

Warren Jeffords, Chairman of the school board, stated, “This is really about what is most beneficial for our children. It’s not an easy decision when you are talking about merging schools and closing schools. It’s a very difficult decision.” He might have been referring to the past 10 months of speculation, debate and argument over this choice.

In February of this year, Darlington School District Superintendant Tim Newman asked the board to consider combining the two schools into one modern state-of-the-art facility. Over the past 10 months, there has been much back-and-forth regarding the move. At the February meeting, DCSD Superintendent Tim Newman Said this could save the school district $2 million per year in operating costs, but it could trigger intense debate. That, it certainly did. At that time, Newman asked the board members to only start conversation about this concept. Newman also reminded the board, “If we do nothing, at some point in time, we’ll get to appoint where we have to start shutting down parts of schools.”  Newman explained to the board that it costs about $5.5 million per year to operate the 2 schools and that, combining them would save the school district about $2 million a year in operating costs (excluding the cost of construction).

In March, a petition and signature drive was launched, by former St. Johns Elementary (SJE) student Josh Byrum, and garnered over 1,200 signatures in support of keeping both school open, with possible renovations. The SJE site has served as a type of school since 181 and the current main building was finished in 1902. Also in March, the school district held public hearings so the public would have the opportunity to voice their opinions for consideration by the school board. By this time, the petition had gained over 1,500 signatures opposed to the move. Society Hill Mayor Dwayne Duke appealed to the board, “Why can’t we take that money, divide it up between the two schools, upfit and retrofit those schools to be up to par, instead of building a school and having all our schools in disarray?” DCSD Superintendent Tim Newman explained that renovating and upgrading the two schools to modern day construction and safety codes would  cost approximately $60 million. Merging the two, and building a new  modern facility, would cost half that price.

In late March, the school district announced that they had no immediate plans to go forward with the move because they had no significant property available for the construction. “We currently do not have property at this point in time, “ Superintendent Newman said, “We’ve looked at a lot of property throughout the area but, we currently do not have a property.” Darlington County resident C.C. Kirby stated, “I think it’s going to happen. I think you’re going to lose the school. That’s going to happen. There’s no doubt in my mind.” Darlington County Historical Commission and Museum Director Brian Gandy said, “If I was a betting man, I would say y’all have already bought property or are negotiating on property on (U.S. Hwy.) 52. Darlington City Council member Bryant Gardner also said, “We’ve already lost Brunson-Dargan. We’ve lost Spring (Elementary). We’ve lost (the original high school) St. Johns. Are we going to lose another school?” At that same March meeting, Society Hill Mayor Dwayne Duke stated, “This is blessed ground. They’re not gonna do this. They can’t do this. When I walk in these halls, I feel something I feel all those students who came out of here!”

By April of this year, school board members said they were disappointed, frustrated and baffled by the negative reaction to their proposal. Board member Wanda Hassler said, “We’re not building schools because we are overcrowded or we are expanding. We’re building schools because we need to consolidate and combine because we have a declining tax base.” Board member Leigh Anne Kelley stated, “I cannot believe that my community is turning away a $30 million opportunity. How this turned into such a nasty, dirty negative conversation is just beyond me.”

 Board member Charles Govan said, “One of the things we need to get the public to understand is that there has not been any property purchased. That seems to have been a thought out there that has lingered, and it’s not true.”  Board chairman Warren Jeffords stated, “No decision has been made on this at all; We’ve just been gathering information.”

But, things changed in May, when the school board voted unanimously to purchase about 112 acres of land off U.S. Hwy. 52. At first, the location of the property and the price paid were not made public. Later, it was found that the cost was $1.6 million and the land was located at 2300 North Governor Williams Highway, a parcel which was previously owned by Marshall Flowers/Sun Construction. The property already had a main office building with seven or eight offices in it, as well as a conference room, bathroom and kitchen. It housed a hydraulic lift, 2 very large sheds which could house tractors and maintenance vehicles. 

At that time, in May, Brian Gandy said, “That’s it! I guarantee you that’s it!” Gandy continued, “I’m sorry I was right. It’s going to be a hard reality. Every bit of this has already been decided.” Superintendent Tim Newman stated, “It’s always a good idea to have contingency property. Having more property gives you a lot more options.” The die was cast, the decision had been made and there was no turning back.

So, when the vote was called, on December 12th, board members Leigh Anne Kelley (District 1), Warren Jeffords (District 4), Richard Brewer (District 5), Wanda Hassler (District 7, and Jamie Morphis (District 8) voted in favor of the consolidation and construction of the new school. Only 2 boardmembers – Lucas Reed (District 2) and Charles Govan (District 6) voted in opposition. The new school will be built at 2308 N. Governor Williams Highway on the land the school voted to purchase in May. Superintendent Newman stated, “This was a difficult decision for the board. The historical sifnificance of the Rosenwald and St. Johns speaks for itself. Merging these two schools into a newly constructed, modern, technology-rich, safe, and secure building with educational spaces suited for today’s learners is what we believe is best for our students’ future.” Newman went on to admit, “I know there may be some disappointment in both communities, but I hope everyone understands our primary commitment is to student success.”

Several board members expressed a desire to find new uses and purposes for the old school buildings in the community. Lucas Reed stated, “We need to make sure these buildings (Rosenwald and St. Johns) do not go unused. We have options available with the buildings. But, first and foremost, we’ve got to place our kids first.”  Leigh Anne Kelley, said, “It’s not an easy decision to make, but I know we have spent the better part of this year doing our due diligence. The safety of the kids and the betterment of the kids always comes first.”

The $30 million pricetag to complete construction should not add one penny to the taxpayers’ debt. The school district has over $35 million in unused funds to complete the project. The Darlington County School District Board will meet again in January of 2023.

Author: Stephan Drew

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