Sumter residents wrote to support education Superintendent Spearman

Of 18 letters and emails, 16 in favor of state education superintendent’s decision on school district finances

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 4/16/19

In the weeks since Sumter School District's Board of Trustees voted to reopen Mayewood Middle School and the state intervened, numerous local residents have made their feelings known to the state Department of Education.

A review by The Sumter …

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Sumter residents wrote to support education Superintendent Spearman

Of 18 letters and emails, 16 in favor of state education superintendent’s decision on school district finances

Posted

In the weeks since Sumter School District's Board of Trustees voted to reopen Mayewood Middle School and the state intervened, numerous local residents have made their feelings known to the state Department of Education.

A review by The Sumter Item of official written correspondence by letters and email directed to state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and state department staff before the district's appeal hearing with the state Board of Education last week showed 18 total emails and/or letters from Sumter residents or agencies. Of those, 16 were in support of Spearman declaring a fiscal emergency in Sumter School District. Two emails were in favor of the school board.

Among the 16 favoring the state superintendent and calling out the school board for its recent actions were six teachers or former teachers, the Sumter Development Board, Mayor Joe McElveen and Sumter County Council Chairman Jim McCain.

In general, those in support of Spearman called for the state board to uphold her fiscal emergency declaration in the district from Feb. 27 and wrote that Sumter residents and business/industry want better, and students deserve better, than the current school board's behavior. In appealing the state superintendent's declaration, the trustees allowed the district to incur at least about $20,000 in attorneys' fees, according to information obtained previously by The Sumter Item.

State Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown also said he was told numerous other emails were sent directly to state school board members but that he didn't have access to those email accounts.

These recent letters join the ranks of several others, including the president/CEO of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce, the school board's Shaw Air Force Base liaison, Shaw's 20th Fighter Wing commander and Gov. Henry McMaster in condemning the local trustees.

The two emails in support of the trustees' actions were from local community activist Brenda Williams and one district employee.

When the board voted 6-3 to reopen the East Brewington Road school on Feb. 11, it diverted from its own fiscal caution recovery plan submitted in May 2018 to the state Department. Under state law, that allowed Spearman to declare a fiscal emergency in the district.

Mayewood and F.J. DeLaine Elementary School were just closed last year by the board - albeit one consisting of five different trustees that changed over in the November midterm election.

A year ago, the board said the closings were due to low enrollment and in an effort to save money. The district consolidated Mayewood into R.E. Davis Elementary School, which is 1.3 miles away. The school has been renamed R.E. Davis College Preparatory Academy and operates with a K-8 magnet curriculum. F.J. DeLaine students were moved to Cherryvale Elementary School, which is three miles away.

The district is still emerging from a financial crisis discovered about 2.5 years ago. The official fiscal 2016 audit report, presented in December of that year, first revealed the district overspent its budget by $6.2 million that year and drained its fund balance to $106,449.

State law requires the district to have one month's operating expenditures in that fund balance by June 30, 2020. After falling to the 2016 mark, the balance had been rebuilt to a projected near $10 million by the end of this year.

One month's operating expenditures, as estimated before a revamp of the budget, is between $10 million and $12 million.

After the financial crisis, former Superintendent Frank Baker retired in July 2017, and Debbie Hamm became the interim superintendent on Aug. 1, 2017. In the November election, Baker ran for an at-large seat and won. On the revamped board, he was voted its vice chairman at its first meeting on Nov. 26. Though he initially brought up the idea to close low-enrollment schools when he was leading the district, he has voted every time in support of reopening Mayewood and to appeal the state's emergency declaration. He has yet to answer repeated questions from The Sumter Item on his change in stance or why he was not present at the appeal hearing last week.

Hardly any parents of R.E. Davis students have spoken out at meetings on transitional problems at the school this year. Community members have spoken, but not parents.

No signs have been displayed at board meetings referencing problems at the school. In fact, more parents of students in the district have spoken out against reopening Mayewood - given the associated costs - than in favor of the school's reopening.

Baker also recommended in early February to the board's Policy Committee to remove community members from the board's advisory Finance Committee. Policy Committee Chairman the Rev. Daryl McGhaney said the committee planned to meet again later in February. It still has not done so.

In its decision last week, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to affirm Spearman's emergency declaration in the district. At this time, the district is waiting on financial recommendations from the state department. Spearman has said those recommendations most likely will not include reopening Mayewood.