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What are the consequences of closing BES?

Posted: May 9, 2014 1:43 p.m.
Updated: May 12, 2014 5:00 a.m.

When I first moved into Kershaw County in 1999, I lived just inside the Cassatt zip code, close to Camden’s. The following year, I began working for this newspaper as a staff reporter. My beats comprised covering the city of Camden, including crime; healthcare, especially as related to KershawHealth; and the town of Bethune.

By the time I started covering town council meetings there, Bethune High School had already closed and the Bethune Charter School was struggling to stay open. The charter school eventually closed as well. The refrain I often heard during those years was that the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees was to blame for both closures. Residents often said that the district didn’t really care about the town or its students and, therefore, the schools.

Aside from Camden and Elgin, Bethune is the only other incorporated municipality in Kershaw County. Inside its city limits, Camden has high,  middle and elementary schools, with another elementary school nearby. Elgin has an elementary and a middle school just outside its town limits.

For a decade, Bethune has been left with a single elementary school. In 2000, when I started covering Bethune, the town’s population was 352. During the next 10 years -- without a high school or even a charter school -- the population fell to 334, according to the 2010 Census. Only 18 fewer people, but that’s a 5 percent loss in population.

During the same period, Camden gained 2 percent in population and Elgin’s population increased a whopping 62 percent from 806 residents to 1,311.

Unless something extraordinary happens -- Suominen Nonwovens suddenly expanding to add dozens of jobs, for instance -- I’m betting Bethune’s population will at least remain stagnant, if not decrease over time.

Closing Bethune Elementary School (BES) will not help, and I fear the consequences if it should close.

I completely understand the district’s motivation behind consolidating schools, especially into new facilities. You may actually save money in the long run even though you’re spending up front on construction. You also end up with safer, more modern facilities.

But there are almost always unintended consequences to just about any decision. The district and board are trying to make what they believe are the best decisions for the county’s entire student population. Admittedly, some of that across-the-board benefit comes from decisions made in individual communities.

Sometimes, though, you have to look beyond dollars and cents and what seems best on paper. Sometimes, you have to look at the impact on the community.

Take Jackson School for instance. Folks living nearby the original school (now a hybrid of the Continuous Learning Center and Head Start) were understandably upset at their community school being taken away. The new Jackson was built miles away in east Camden. Don’t get me wrong, the new Jackson’s great, but was it the right decision for the community? Honestly, I don’t know; it might take years to be certain.

The impact on Bethune of closing BES might be more severely and more swiftly felt.

The bottom line question is this: Can a municipality survive without a school in or very near its town limits? Although there are exceptions, I think housing growth tends to follow where the schools are. There’s no doubt, for example, that a good number of homes sprung up with the current Pine Tree Hill Elementary School.

North Central middle and high school are great schools. However, I suspect their populations are maintained not due to their immediately surrounding communities, but because its attendance zone is so large, cutting across the entire top of the county east of the Wateree River. Look at an aerial map of the area and there are no major subdivisions nearby. That could change with a new elementary school, of course, but who knows?

BES has an entire town around it. A small town; perhaps one that might dwindle over time, but a town nonetheless.

What will happen if BES closes? I’ve heard that the town of Kershaw left for Lancaster County after the decision to build North Central High School. Bethune could decide to join Chesterfield County for similar reasons. McBee isn’t that far away, and boasts elementary and high schools.

BES and North Central Middle are 17 to 18 miles apart; bus routes are longer than that, of course. McBee doesn’t have a middle school (the nearest is outside of Jefferson, 20 miles away), but the two towns are only 7 miles apart. What if Chesterfield agreed to build a middle school in McBee?

Worse, though, the town could just give up and unincorporate. Both outcomes are distasteful.

What’s the best way to make sure neither happens? Keep BES open. If you must consolidate, follow Bethune Town Councilman John Fulmer’s idea: only do so with Mt. Pisgah. After all, Baron DeKalb Elementary recently went through a $5 million makeover, and Midway Elementary apparently has a sustainable population. I would contend that keeping a consolidated school in Bethune proper would be best, but a midway point might not be a bad idea.

Bethune is sometimes thought of as the county’s unwanted stepchild. It’s time the town felt far more like a true member of the family before its century-plus bond with the county is severed forever.

Keeping its school open or close by is one way to do that.


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