Leader sees value in having 2 studies


Despite the fact that recommendations for two studies that could affect the future of low-enrollment schools in the district were not presented Monday at Sumter School District's Board of Trustees' meeting, the interim superintendent still thinks those studies have merit and could provide valuable information.

Due in part to timing and a mix-up in communication, the school board's Facilities Committee Chairman William Byrd didn't present motions to the full board for a facilities study with an independent consultant to analyze the condition of the district's schools and a county population demographics study to include short-term and long-term enrollment projections in the district's schools. Facilities Committee members unanimously approved both motions at their initial meeting three days earlier on Friday, Oct. 20. In addition to Byrd, the committee consists of board Vice Chairwoman Karen Michalik and board member the Rev. Ralph Canty.

On Monday night at the meeting, Byrd - a new board member appointed on July 31 - said he wanted to discuss contract bid pricing concerns for the two studies with fellow board members in executive session and behind closed doors before formally recommending them to the board in open session. When told he couldn't change the board's agenda during the actual meeting and add that item to the closed session, the motions basically didn't move forward and weren't discussed any further that night.

After the meeting, Byrd described it as a "missed opportunity" and said the board will discuss the merit of the two studies at its next meeting on Nov. 13 and decide if it wants to move forward with them.

According to the committee, the studies will be a comprehensive look at existing schools' physical assets and needs and future facility utilization, which could factor into closing certain district schools.

Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm said last week if the board deems the studies a good idea, she will move forward with the formal process of seeking study proposers. If the board thinks the studies are a bad idea - given associated costs or another factor - she said she will not proceed.

Hamm said she thinks the studies can provide necessary facts the Facilities Committee needs in moving forward.

The topic of closing low-enrollment schools has been discussed at least to some degree since a district financial crisis was discovered last year. The fiscal 2016 audit report, released in December by auditor Robin Poston, revealed the district overspent by $6.2 million that year and had an ending general fund balance on June 30, 2016, of $106,449 - a critically low level, according to Poston.

On Dec. 12, when Poston gave the audit report, she told board members to look at all possible cost-saving measures, including consolidating any of its 28 schools.

In the spring, when the district had an outside financial consultant on staff, he recommended closing two low-enrollment schools at the end of last school year (F.J. DeLaine Elementary and Mayewood Middle schools) and two more at the end of this school year to build the district's low fund balance back up.

The consultant, Scott Allan, projected closing the two schools last school year would provide $3.6 million in cost savings this fiscal year to add to the general fund. He said at the time cost savings would mostly come in the areas of utility costs and insurance for the facilities. Combined enrollment at the two schools last year was about 320 students. The district's current total enrollment is 16,801 students, according to district data.

In late April, the board voted down the motion, in a 4-2 split vote, to close the two schools.

Shortly thereafter, the board voted to form a Development Assistance Committee to gather community input on potentially closing schools. To date, the DAC has not taken any action.

In the Facilities Committee meeting on Oct. 20, Hamm said she thinks the facilities study and the population demographics study can help the committee properly engage with the DAC. She said she thinks a facilities study could be completed in about three months once started. Hamm said she doesn't think the demographics study would take an extensive amount of time either.

"Without the right information under our belt, we might make some decisions that aren't the best decisions," Hamm said. "I would hate to involve the DAC in making decisions without the correct information."

Committee members seemed to agree with Hamm's suggestions and later passed the motions for the studies.