Opinion: Sumter school board should act in public's interest


I urge our community to become informed of the recent irresponsible, reckless and illegal action by members of the Sumter County School District Board of Trustees.

The decision to re-open Mayewood Middle School could have a lasting and damaging impact on the education of the youth of Sumter County.

Six of our school board members voted this week to reopen the school without notifying the public, media, board chairman, superintendent or chief financial officer of their intentions. As noted by The Sumter Item, this action is a clear violation of the Freedom of Information Act and subjects the district to a potential legal challenge that could be both costly and a distraction from the education process.

Please do not confuse my concern as being anti-Mayewood Middle School. My family has attachments to the school, and I am very sympathetic for those with long-standing traditions centered on a school that served the community for more than 70 years. My concern is the process or lack thereof that was orchestrated by six board members to rescind an evidence-based decision to close Mayewood Middle at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Our governor, members of the state Legislature including both Republicans and Democrats and our state superintendent of education have all recently emphasized that recruiting and retaining quality teachers has to be our state's primary focus. However, as it appears on the surface, our new school board is in the business of back-room deals that jeopardize the financial stability of our district and send the wrong message to our teachers about our area of focus.

As a member of the district's Finance Advisory Committee, I witnessed firsthand the financial crisis of 2016 that led to the South Carolina Department of Education notifying the district of potential state intervention.

During this time of turmoil, the Sumter School District was within dollars of not being able to make payroll and over $6 million over budget. Fortunately, over the last 18 months, with academic achievement at the forefront, district leaders implemented a methodical approach that incorporated sound financial decisions and involved the local business community while establishing a clear pathway to financial stability.

In contrast, the recent irresponsible action of some board members is symbolic of previous district leadership that led to the financial crisis of 2016 and depleted the district's reserve fund. Furthermore, the concern of maintaining local control of our education system is at great risk as our finances are still on the watch list by the South Carolina Department of Education.

Economies of scale teaches us that larger schools can operate at a lower cost per student than smaller schools. Conservatively, it takes a minimum of a million dollars in fixed costs to operate a school, no matter if it enrolls 200 students or 2,000. Each school regardless of size has a principal, guidance counselor, media specialist, custodial staff, food services and utility bills and must conduct routine maintenance of the building and grounds.

So where does the million dollars come from to reopen Mayewood Middle? Clearly, the school district does not have an extra million set aside for this as they are still recovering from prior financial mismanagement. Does the money come from a much-needed raise for our teachers and employees? Will this decision cause an increase in class sizes or the elimination of reading interventionists, kindergarten readiness programs or extracurricular activities such as our sports programs or the arts?

If it is the will of the people of Sumter County to reopen a school, then we should demand our elected board members follow the legally mandated roles and responsibilities that each agreed to under oath.

First and foremost, the board should notify all stakeholders of potential action items during board meetings, especially those of high consequence. Secondly, all discussions of the issue should be in an open forum. Finally, all stakeholders should be informed of the benefits and consequences of potential board action. I am willing to listen if the opportunity presents itself, but to date I have seen no evidence of increased student achievement or financial incentive to justify operating a school with less than 300 students. If we are going to do right by our children, our financial decisions should ensure appropriate resources to help them become college and career ready.

School board members are charged to make decisions that are in the best interest of our students - not for adults with an axe to grind. Please join me in holding our elected board members accountable for making teaching and learning the top priority in our district.


Greg Thompson is a Sumter School District Finance Committee member, chairman of Sumter Economic Development Board and president and CEO of Thompson Construction Group Inc. and chairman of Thompson Industrial Services LLC. He also serves on the board of TheLINK.