Sumter School District approves facilities, demographics studies

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Two studies could affect the future of smaller, low-enrollment public schools in Sumter.

With the unanimous approval of the Facilities Committee's motions by the Sumter School District Board of Trustees on Monday, Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm will move forward with the formal process of seeking proposers for a facilities study and a county population demographics study.

Both studies will be performed by independent consultants. The facilities study will take a comprehensive look at the district's existing schools' physical assets and needs, and the demographics study will include short-term and long-term enrollment projections in the district's schools for facility-utilization purposes.

Hamm said previously she thinks the studies can provide necessary facts the Facilities Committee needs in moving forward with its duties and properly engaging with a Development Assistance Committee, which will gather community input on potentially closing schools.

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.

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 fund balance back up.

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

Shortly thereafter, the board voted to form the DAC, which has not yet taken any action.

The district and board have implemented numerous cost-saving measures since January in an effort to build the fund balance. The district projects to add about $665,000 to it for fiscal 2017. Also, a "millage rate swap," passed by the board in September, will add about $2 million to the general fund balance this fiscal year.

The issue of declining enrollment directly translates to less revenue it can receive from the state, affecting the general fund balance.

Hamm said Monday the state Department of Education accepted the district's financial recovery plan, which it submitted after being placed on "fiscal watch" in July.

The district will remain on "fiscal watch" with the state department through this fiscal year - which is a customary timeline set by the DOE - but Hamm said she is pleased the plan was accepted and that the district can now move forward.