"We can be great, if we work together."
That was the overall message presented by Sumter School District Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm and other community leaders Friday during the inaugural Leaders for Learning Partnership Breakfast hosted by the school district.
About 130 business, education, government and faith-based leaders attended the event held at First Church of the Nazarene on Patriot Parkway, where Hamm laid out the recent past of the school district, the present and a bright future if various community and school leaders work together to achieve goals.
Hamm emphasized how having high expectations and working to meet and exceed them are critical to building a culture of excellence in any public school district.
A life-long public educator spending most of her career in Richland School District 2 - the last four years as superintendent - Hamm came on board as interim superintendent in Sumter on Aug. 1. She is expected to stay with the district through June 2018, when a new full-time superintendent will likely begin.
Hamm replaced previous Superintendent Frank Baker, who mutually agreed with Sumter School District's Board of Trustees to retire at the end of July, after months of turmoil and challenges following the December release of the 2016 audit report. That audit revealed the district overspent by $6.2 million that fiscal year and had an ending general fund balance on June 30, 2016, of $106,449 - a critically low level, according to the district's auditor.
Hamm opened her comments Friday to the assembled leaders by fully acknowledging the district's past shortcomings, but she also emphasized the steps forward the district has already made in recent months and several outstanding academic programs currently in the district.
Some of those steps forward include: the hiring of a new district chief financial officer in Certified Public Accountant Chris Griner; a renewed emphasis on academic achievement spearheaded by school principals; and growth in standard, effective practices and procedures to include the area of human resources in the district office.
Traditionally a county with two smaller school districts, Sumter School District 17 and Sumter School District 2 were consolidated into one district in 2011.
Hamm noted that now - with close to 17,000 students - Sumter School District is the 12th largest of the 82 public school districts in the state.
"We're now a large district, and I am happy to say we're growing in the systems and standard practices that we need to have in place as a large district," Hamm said.
She went on to discuss several noteworthy academic programs already in place that are preparing students for the 21st-century workforce and that can help lay the foundation for a brighter future.
Those programs include a dual enrollment program that had more than 250 high school students enrolled last year in credit courses with local colleges, and a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiative in place at Alice Drive Middle School. Other initiatives helping to create a skilled workforce for the future include revamped technical course offerings at the Sumter Career and Technology Center, a soft skills pilot program in two middle schools and laying the groundwork for a new technical high school on Broad Street where students can learn about cutting-edge, advanced careers.
With "good things already happening," Hamm said she thinks the school district has potential to become a great school district with the help of community leaders through partnerships and agreements.
"Ultimately, I want you to help us make it come true," Hamm said.
She said for a good future, the district must continue to transition into a new era with new leadership and make positive changes. Another must is to communicate transparently with the community and build trust back, according to Hamm.
If the district can continue to do the right things internally and develop community partnerships, Hamm said the district can exceed people's expectations.
"We are committed to giving you the very best efforts in the months ahead," Hamm said. "We are at a time where we can expect nothing less than the best from ourselves and our leaders to shape policies and develop programs that advance our vision and achieve our goals for learning. We can be great if we work together."
Community leaders also held round-table discussions on a future they imagine for Sumter's public schools and on agreements and partnerships it will take to get there. Several table leaders then reported to the larger group on their brainstorming exercise.
To close Friday's event, Jay Schwedler, president and CEO of the Sumter Economic Development Board, addressed the audience and echoed Hamm's sentiments.
Schwedler congratulated her on her work so far in the interim position and discussed rapid changes in the global economy that impact Sumter's economy and cause workforce skills gaps that must be addressed.
"We have amazing opportunities and challenges in front of us to provide the appropriate workforce talent for our businesses and industries going forward," Schwedler said. "That can be accomplished with the buy-in and commitment of all of us as stakeholders. Growth can occur when we actively and positively engage with our school district."