Thompson resigns from Finance Committee, pursuing public charter school for Sumter

Private business leader, other community leaders call out school board

Sumter private business leader Greg Thompson, center, leads Thursday’s discussion among community leaders and public charter school officials. Thompson said he’s putting his energies toward developing such a school in Sumter now.
Sumter private business leader Greg Thompson, center, leads Thursday’s discussion among community leaders and public charter school officials. Thompson said he’s putting his energies toward developing such a school in Sumter now.

In what he described as a "struggle with the majority leadership on the Sumter school board" against a technical high school, local private business leader Greg Thompson has resigned from the board's advisory Finance Committee and is now leading a charge to establish a public charter school in Sumter County.

After an informational meeting on Thursday, what grades that school would serve and other details are still a work in progress, he said.

Thompson, chairman of the Sumter Development Board and president and chief executive officer of Thompson Construction Group, told The Sumter Item of his resignation from the school board's committee Thursday morning after a development board meeting at its downtown offices.

Immediately after the development board meeting, Thompson facilitated another meeting with the board chairman of the state public charter school district and two public charter school co-founders, who in recent years started such a school in Jasper County in the Lowcountry.

Community leaders who attended Thursday's introductory charter school meeting included Sumter Mayor Joe McElveen; former Sumter Mayor Steve Creech, who is on the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee and previously served as its long-time chairman; current Sumter School Board Trustee Johnny Hilton; Sumter Development Board President/CEO Jay Schwedler; school board Finance Committee member and fellow private business owner Ben Griffith; and Jehovah Missionary Baptist Senior Pastor the Rev. Marion Newton, among others.

"Tuesday, I resigned from the Finance Committee," Thompson said, "and I am devoting 100% of my time and attention to bringing a charter public school to Sumter."

Thompson served 6.5 years on the school district board's advisory Finance Committee, he said.

Thursday's meeting included state public charter school district Chairman John Payne and Jasper County-based charter school co-founders Sandra Chavez and Kim Statler. Chavez and Statler started Polaris Tech Charter School in Ridgeland last fall. The school currently serves grades 6-10 and has 230 students but is planning to add 11th and 12th grade and about 50 students per year, they said.


Mutually citing in their opinion that the Sumter school board as a whole is not moving in the right direction, "going backwards," and has lost the trust of the community and Shaw Air Force Base leaders, Thompson and the others said the time is now to move forward with pursuing a public charter school in Sumter.

For a few years now, Thompson has wanted the district to pursue a technical high school to better prepare students for local industrial careers and college. Land has been purchased and state funding has been secured, but he said the current board has no interest in moving forward to enhance educational opportunities in Sumter.

The current nine-member board, which includes a five-member changeover from the November mid-term election, has been the headline news topic in the school district since taking office.

The previous board gained much community support for steps it took to enhance the district's financial balance sheet and add academic programs.

After the district overspent its budget by $6.2 million in fiscal year 2016, former Superintendent Frank Baker retired, and an interim superintendent, Debbie Hamm, has been in place since Aug. 1, 2017.

One of the board's cost-saving measures was closing two low-enrollment schools in Mayewood Middle School and F.J. DeLaine Elementary School in Wedgefield. At the time of their closing, the two schools' combined enrollment was 1.5% of the district's total enrollment.

This year, Mayewood students have moved to R.E. Davis Elementary School, which is 1.3 miles away, and the school has been renamed the K-8 R.E. Davis College Preparatory Academy and operates with a magnet curriculum.

In February, the revamped board - which includes Baker, who ran and won an at-large seat in November - voted 6-3 to reopen Mayewood. After voting to reopen the school and diverting from its own financial recovery plan set in 2018, state Superintendent Molly Spearman declared a "fiscal emergency" in the district on Feb. 27. Then, the board voted 7-2 to appeal the declaration to the state Board of Education in Columbia.

The state board denied the district/trustees' appeal on April 9 in a 10-0 unanimous vote in favor of the state superintendent. The appeal cost the district about $26,000 alone in attorneys' fees.

In its first meeting last November, a new board member, Sherril Ray, proposed removing one committee that was established by the previous board and removing the public from the board's Finance Committee, which included Thompson.


As the previous superintendent, Baker recommended closing the low-enrollment schools but now has been a big supporter of reopening Mayewood as a trustee. He has never answered questions from The Sumter Item since late January on his changed stance.

On Thursday, Thompson called out Baker as he has done previously.

"When Frank Baker was superintendent, he refused to listen to his Finance Committee," Thompson said. "We advised against the budget that ultimately led to a $6.2 million shortfall. He refused to listen to us. Now, Frank Baker is leading a majority of this board, and we are in 'fiscal emergency.'

"Frank Baker is destroying our community. He has the track record to prove it: A $6 million deficit as a superintendent and, within 90 days of being elected to the board, we are in 'fiscal emergency,' because of his decision to move against our financial recovery plan that was approved by the state.

"The majority of that board can't run the district we have, much less have an advanced studies school that we've talked about. We can't get our finances right to run the schools we have."


Payne, chairman of the state public charter school district, noted broad-based community support will be necessary to establish a charter in Sumter.

Chavez and Statler, from Polaris Tech Charter School in Ridgeland, said their charter is a complete cultural change from a current K-12 public school classroom model. The focus is on project-based learning as opposed to lectures, and innovation and technology are also critical, similar to a business environment.

As a public-school charter, Polaris hires teachers from the same pool as a regular school district. Funding is state and federal dollars. The state's base student cost, or per-pupil funding, follows the particular student, whether the student attends a regular public school or a public charter, Chavez and Statler said.

Many say that creates a good competition, they said.


Thursday's meeting, which lasted a little more than 1.5 hours, was much like a "fire hose" presentation of information, Statler admitted. Thompson said the next matter is to create an originating board of concerned residents and to hire an executive director, similar to a principal, to begin the state charter application process.

Thompson said he's still committed to Sumter School District, and his company will continue its community partnership with Crosswell Drive Elementary School, and he will help the district in several ways, such as with its E3 professional development conference. On Thursday, Thompson and the Sumter Development Board presented checks totaling $85,000 for this summer's conference.