Sumter school board takes no action on F.J. DeLaine Elementary School

Same issues dominate trustees’ meeting Monday night


It was more of the same discussion but with a different outcome Monday night at the Sumter School District Board of Trustees' regularly scheduled monthly meeting.

Ultimately, the full board took no action on whether to reopen F.J. DeLaine Elementary School in Wedgefield.

At February's regularly scheduled board meeting, the trustees voted 6-3 to reopen Mayewood Middle School, and Area 1 Representative Brian Alston asked for a similar discussion this month on F.J. DeLaine, which is in his district. Less than a year ago, the nine-member board - consisting of five different trustees before the November midterm election - voted to close both schools as a way to save money due to low enrollment. At the time, the district was emerging from a financial crisis from overspending its fiscal 2016 budget by $6.2 million.

F.J. DeLaine students this year have consolidated into Cherryvale Elementary School, which is three miles away, and new academic programs have been implemented there to potentially increase student achievement and the marketability of the school. Mayewood students have moved into R.E. Davis Elementary School, which is now operating as R.E. Davis College Preparatory Academy, a K-8 school with a magnet curriculum.

In open session Monday, several trustees engaged in a sometimes-spirited, 30-minute discussion revisiting the topic of both schools' closings.

Alston was adamant that F.J. DeLaine reopen and that its closing has and will severely hurt the local community.

"When it comes to DeLaine, as a board and as a community, we talk about workforce and economic development," Alston said. "You don't kill communities and expect economic development. Schools are the bedrock of a community. Without schools in our communities, we have nothing. If we want to actually see our county grow, then we have to invest in every community in this county, not just a few."

Board Chairman the Rev. Ralph Canty, who represents Area 6, and Area 4 Representative Johnny Hilton, who both voted against reopening Mayewood, said because historical data shows fewer and fewer children are living in rural portions of the county, the need for having as many schools in those areas changes.

School equity issues

Alston countered by saying closing rural schools and only having certain educational programs in schools in the city creates "educational inequities in this county."

Canty and Hilton said research shows the cost to educate students in low-enrollment schools is disproportionately high, and that creates inequity.

According to a cost analysis district administration presented to the board for hours before they voted to reopen Mayewood, the middle school on East Brewington Road had the highest average per-pupil expenditures of Sumter's seven middle schools at $15,236 in fiscal 2018. Only Hillcrest and Chestnut Oaks middle schools broke $10,000.

Mayewood and F.J. DeLaine's combined projected enrollment for this year was 242 students, about 1.5 percent of the total school system, according to district data and previous reporting.

"When we spend more on kids in School X than we're spending on School Y, that is not equity," Hilton said. "When we have more kids in a class over here in this school and fewer kids in a class over here, that is not equity. This is tough stuff. It's heartbreaking. But we're sitting up here because we were elected to help all the children, not just the kids in Area 4, where I live. Not just the kids who live in Area 1, or 2, or 3 or wherever. We are serving the entire district."

Where's the cost analysis on reopening DeLaine?

Alston said he was upset that district administration didn't prepare a full cost-estimate analysis of reopening F.J. DeLaine as they did for Mayewood. He said there was no excuse for administration not having a presentation prepared.

In response, Canty said it was his belief district staff didn't have time to prepare a similar report on F.J. DeLaine, given its regular workload and its work in preparing the trustees' appeal to the state Board of Education that will be later this month.

With its decision to reopen Mayewood last month, the state Department of Education declared a "fiscal emergency" in the district at the end of February. The school board is in the middle of appealing that declaration to the state board.

Sumter must reach one month's operating expenditures in its general fund balance by June 30, 2020, according to a new state law. After fiscal 2016, the balance was down to $106,449. After fiscal 2018, it was at $8.6 million.

In last summer's financial recovery plan that was submitted to the state, that one month's operating spending was about $12 million.

Attendance lines

Alston also said rural schools could be helped by redrawing the district's attendance lines, which hasn't been done since the former two districts in Sumter - Sumter 17 and Sumter 2 - consolidated into one in 2011.

Hilton said he thinks that will create longer bus routes. Canty said redrawing attendance lines is something the district will have to discuss at some point in the future but hopefully after the district's new superintendent, Penelope Martin-Knox, who is coming from Baltimore, Maryland, earns trust and can lead that discussion with the board and community.

While it may not affect all the issues or low enrollment, attendance lines will be redrawn in 2021 regardless of whether the two schools open.

Before the financial crisis in 2016, there were only seven board members. The Sumter County Legislative Delegation appointed two at-large seats in July 2017 to represent the entire district, neither of whom won their elections in November for the posts that were being voted on for the first time. As part of that appointment, Sumter's state legislators mandated that attendance lines form nine single-member districts and to accommodate changes in the upcoming 2020 census.

After executive session

After the discussion, the board went into executive session behind closed doors for discussion on other matters.

When the board returned to open session, Canty asked trustees if there was any action to be taken on the reopening of F.J. DeLaine. No one spoke.

The board meeting concluded about 8:40 p.m.

At the end of the meeting, Canty said he's not sure if a discussion on reopening F.J. DeLaine will be on next month's agenda.