Residents in rural areas of Sumter County affected by last year's Sumter School District school consolidations say they want more conversation with district leadership moving forward.
Sumter County NAACP President Elizabeth Kilgore and fellow …
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Sumter County NAACP President Elizabeth Kilgore and fellow executive committee member Carlton Washington spoke Thursday on rural school communities wanting more of a seat at the table for their individual concerns and about a recent organizational meeting at Eastern Community Center, 3675 E. Brewington Road, in the eastern portion of the county.
Washington and Kilgore said they felt the district's interim superintendent the last two years, Debbie Hamm, wasn't as approachable as they would have liked and hope they can build a better bridge with new district Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox.
Knox officially started as the district's new leader on July 1.
The NAACP leaders said they are still upset by the closure of Mayewood Middle School in that part of the county by the district's Board of Trustees at the end of the 2017-18 school year. Hamm was the district's leader at the time. Last school year, Mayewood students were moved 1.3 miles away to the newly named R.E. Davis K-8 College Preparatory Academy, and new academic programs were implemented at the school to increase its marketability.
Washington and Kilgore also said they are disappointed by the board's vote to close F.J. DeLaine Elementary School in Wedgefield at the same time and with discussions on closing Rafting Creek Elementary School in Rembert. Hamm eventually dropped closing Rafting Creek from her consolidation proposal.
Last school year, F.J. DeLaine Elementary students were consolidated into another school three miles away, Cherryvale Elementary.
At the time of the consolidations, the trustees said the two school closures were necessary due to low and declining enrollment and in an effort to save money after the district overspent its budget by $6.2 million in fiscal year 2016, draining its general fund balance to $106,449. The district's superintendent then was Frank Baker. He retired after the financial crisis, but he is now the board's vice chairman after winning an at-large seat in last year's November mid-term election.
Martin-Knox said Thursday through a statement that she is open to dialogue with all community leaders.
"Transparent and open communication is vital to the success of any organization," Martin-Knox said. "I look forward to continued dialogue with all of our stakeholders."
Washington and Kilgore said Hamm and the board didn't properly consider the rural communities' concerns in the closure process. The district did have six "community conversation sessions" in the process, and the subject of consolidating schools has been a continued issue in the district for at least a few years, according to various trustees.
July 8 community meeting
The two NAACP leaders said the early July community meeting in the R.E. Davis/Mayewood area was organized by the NAACP after leaders in that area voiced concerns to the organization about facility issues still remaining on the R.E. Davis campus.
School board members Baker and Barbara Jackson attended the meeting and participated in a panel discussion. Jackson represents that area on the board.
In the first year of the revamped school, the middle schoolers didn't have lockers, had to wear their old Mayewood uniforms for some sports, and proper security video wasn't in place, among other issues, according to Washington and Kilgore.
Washington did say some of those issues are being addressed this summer before the start of the school year next month, and Martin-Knox also said administration is trying to prioritize a plan.
Leaders in the R.E. Davis/Mayewood and F.J. DeLaine areas are looking to potentially unite with a community group formed in Rembert during the consolidation process for the development of a county rural association, Washington said.
The NAACP leaders said in all the district's decision-making rural areas of the county have had to sacrifice, while no changes are made in the city of Sumter.
Washington said he wants to see more of a balance.
"Our overriding thought is that we're not opposed to doing what's best for Sumter," Washington said, "but we want everybody to have 'skin in the game,' and that's not been happening, and that's why people are upset."
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