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For more than half of his 7½-minute speech, a longtime legislator used a “Brothers Grimm” fairy tale to discourage division among Sumter’s school district and community leaders.
State Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, shared key points from the 19th-century fable about a feeble widow who goes to live with her son and his family at Tuesday’s annual State of the Schools. Sumter School District invited Weeks to speak at the event on behalf of the county’s legislative delegation.
The way the story goes, Weeks said, the son and his wife get upset that the elderly woman is different and at times spills her food at the dinner table, so they set up a small table in the corner of the room.
The old woman eats her meals alone and with tear-filled eyes would look across the room at the others, Weeks said.
A few days later, the man and his wife see their young daughter busy playing on the floor with her building blocks, and her father asks her what she is doing.
She says, “I am building a table for y’all so that when I grow up, I can put y’all in the corner,” Weeks continued.
The way the tale ends, the two parents discover the error of their ways and bring their mother back to the big table. From that day on, she always eats her meals with them and is never again treated unkindly.
Weeks said there is a lot that can be learned from the old tale.
“But, the main thing is this: We cannot afford to have separate tables in our community,” Weeks said. “There should be a spot at the table for everyone. Regardless of whatever segment of society you are a part of, we must all sit together.
“It’s really, really bad when you get into a situation where we start dividing tables and putting some at the little table and some at the big table. We are all together, and that is what this thing is really all about.”
The attorney and 18-year veteran lawmaker added that a “divisive spirit” only leads to more division, whereas “a spirit of unity begets more unity.”
“So, I am asking you today as a member of the legislative delegation and as a proud graduate of the public schools of Sumter,” Weeks said, “that we engage in working in a spirit of unity … and do all that we can to make our school district the best that the state of South Carolina has to offer.”
Weeks confirmed on Thursday with The Sumter Item that his remarks addressed divisions among City of Sumter residents and Sumter County residents and the various “battles and fights” that have occurred since the former two school districts in Sumter — Sumter District 17 and Sumter District 2 — consolidated in 2011.
He noted recent school board controversies and superintendent changeover. Now in its ninth year as a consolidated district, Sumter’s new superintendent is the consolidated district’s fourth when including an interim who served for the two years before Penelope Martin-Knox took the reins this year.
What exactly was he referring to?
The district’s current nine-member board of trustees has been locked in 6-3 split votes on key issues since November 2018 when five new members were elected.
In spring 2017, the delegation passed legislation to expand the board from seven to nine members because of a lack of movement on issues, local lawmakers said, after it was revealed with the presentation of the official fiscal 2016 audit that the district had overspent by more than $6 million. Those two new members were initially appointed by the delegation. November was the first time voters chose them.
After the original nine-member board closed two declining and low-enrollment schools that represented about 1.5% of the district’s total enrollment in April 2018, the revamped board voted 6-3 to reopen one — Mayewood Middle School — 10 months later.
Already on official fiscal caution from the state Department of Education for having a low general fund balance, state Superintendent Molly Spearman declared a fiscal emergency in the district for the board’s vote to reopen Mayewood, citing the action violated the district’s own state-approved financial recovery plan from May 2018.
Since then, the district has budgeted a position for a full-time chief financial officer and has built its fund balance from the $106,449 it was depleted to at the end of fiscal year 2016 to a projected $14.3 million to end fiscal 2019.
Mayewood did not reopen this year.
The new board is now considering eliminating either its entire committee system or only its members of the public who serve on those committees, which includes only one group — the advisory Finance Committee. Public members have participated on that committee since shortly after consolidation in 2011 and consist of business and community leaders.
Back to the speech
“For so long, we have engaged in a struggle to improve the way we are connected to one another,” Weeks said, “to ensure those connections are fair, free and empowering. We know full well that exclusion only saps our strength, but unity can sustain us and allow us all to accomplish things that we would have no hope of achieving in our squabbling and divisiveness.”
He said the school district can inspire bonds of peace and connection in the community and help children realize and believe that anything is possible for them in life. They do, after all, learn from what they see adults do, just like the child who started building the table for her parents.
“Our public schools are the places where we can share at our great banquet of freedom,” he said, “and make sure that no one is over in the corner when opportunity gets passed around the table.”
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