Members of the Sumter legislative delegation who authored a bill last summer to create and appoint two at-large seats to the school board defended their decision amid an announcement that both of those new board members plan to run for election in …
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Members of the Sumter legislative delegation who authored a bill last summer to create and appoint two at-large seats to the school board defended their decision amid an announcement that both of those new board members plan to run for election in November and amid dissatisfaction from a concerned group.
William Byrd and Bonnie Disney said during the Board Communications portion of Sumter School District's Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday at Lakewood High School that they plan to run for election in November after being appointed last year.
With the new law last year to expand the school board from seven to nine voting members, the two at-large seats will remain at-large for about three years. In 2021, with reapportionment after the next Census, the two seats will convert to single-member seats, like the seven others that are by district. The Board of Trustees will then have nine district seats.
Both Byrd and Disney said they look forward to running in November and that, as at-large members, they would base their decisions on what is in the best interests of all public school students.
Both voted Tuesday in favor of the administration's proposal to close two low-enrollment schools - Mayewood Middle and F.J. DeLaine Elementary - and merge them into larger schools in the same general areas of the county. They were two yes votes in a 5-3 vote.
Community members in opposition to any schools closing have claimed the appointments of Byrd and Disney were an effort to overcome an April 2017 split vote by the seven-member board to not close two schools and public opposition to school closures.
New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund discussed the issue in a letter of concern last week.
The legal defense fund wrote the letter on its behalf and that of a local nonprofit, The Family Unit Inc., operated by Drs. Brenda and Joseph Williams of Sumter.
On Thursday, state Sens. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, and Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, who introduced the bill in the General Assembly in March 2017, said school closures were not a factor in their decision to add the two to the school board. They said their decision was largely because of the school district's financial crisis at the time because of overspending in fiscal year 2016.
Johnson said there was no ulterior motive to adding the two at-large seats.
"I have heard all kinds of theories coming from people on that, and I have told them there was no ulterior motive to adding the two school board members," Johnson said. "As a matter of fact, I was not aware at that time that there was any plan to close any schools. The issue at hand was the fact of the district's financial difficulties. The whole importance of adding two more members was having two more sets of eyes looking at the documents and two more people making decisions. We thought that would help the school board."
He also said some people have been receptive to the new nine-member board, given Byrd and Disney's credentials. Byrd is a certified public accountant, and Disney was a career public educator.
McElveen said he was on the same page with Johnson and that he never heard the suggestion of that ulterior motive until recently.
"The school closure decision was not discussed by the delegation at the time," McElveen said. "It was not something I ever heard until the proposal plan was made public earlier this year."
McElveen said the delegation also wanted to give the selection of board members back to the public as soon as possible.
"The big thing that was important to us was to give it back to the people as soon as we can," he said, "and that's what we did with the November election of both seats."
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