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KCBST votes to consolidate BDK, BES, MPES

Posted: June 5, 2014 5:51 p.m.
Updated: June 6, 2014 5:00 a.m.

The Kershaw County Board of School Trustees voted unanimously, 8-0, Tuesday night to accept a final project list for Phase 2 of the Kershaw County School District’s (KCSD) facilities equalization plan (FEP). The list includes the proposed closure of Baron DeKalb (BDK), Bethune (BES) and Mt. Pisgah (MPES) elementary schools for consolidation into a North Central area elementary school.

The unanimous vote came after a failed tie vote on a four-school consolidation that would have included Midway Elementary School (MES). Trustee Nissary Wood did not attend due to a family obligation.

Trustees will still vote at its next meeting, June 17, on the language of a ballot referendum for voters to consider in November on funding Phase 2, which could include a proposed penny sales tax. Trustees will also vote at that time on prioritizing the FEP projects.

As voted on Tuesday, the project includes a new Applied Technology Education Campus (ATEC), $28.04 million; new Camden Elementary School ($18.15 million), renovations for Camden High School (CHS) ($5.16 million) and CHS athletic projects ($5.44 million); new North Central elementary school ($14.46 million); North Central Middle School (NCHS) addition ($1.92 million), renovations for NCHS ($3.29 million) and NCHS athletic projects ($1.64 million); new Lugoff Elementary ($17.98 million) and Wateree Elementary ($18 million) schools, renovations for Lugoff-Elgin High School (L-EHS) ($9.6 million), additions and renovations at Stover Middle School (SMS) and L-EHS athletic projects ($2.39 million).

The area of most concern throughout the Phase 2 discussion has been the North Central area, especially regarding the possible BDK, BES and MPES consolidation. Board Chair Mara Jones suggested trustees discuss possibilities for the North Central area before taking a vote to accept the entire project list.

Trustee Ron Blackmon listed out the benefits of a four school consolidation.

“No school in the North Central area wants to be closed if you ask people out that way,” Blackmon said. “We got to make a decision, a decision of how we’re going to consolidate.”

Saying consolidation was inevitable, Blackmon said he was looking at a “bigger picture.” He also said centralized elementary, middle and high schools would allow the community there to grow and develop. He also claimed MES could “suffer and struggle,” being left “on the outside” if not consolidated with the other schools. Blackmon said MES would require renovations sooner than the proposed new elementary school.

“I’m not just looking at money, I’m looking at opportunities. That’s what we said we were building. That’s why we’re doing this, but if you want to look at money, let’s look at the cost efficiency,” Blackmon said of a four-school consolidation. “The consolidation of four schools would be a huge savings, almost a million dollars.

“This is my pitch. If we’re not going to offer the same opportunities to all the kids in the North Central area, then why consolidate at all? It’s a tough job.”

Trustee Louis Clyburn said he was originally in support of an earlier proposal to only consolidate BES and MPES, leaving BDK open.

“Well, that’s a dead issue. It went away. I was the only one who wanted that,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said 40 first- through fifth-grade students showed up for a recent camp in the North Central area. He suggested that if all four elementary schools were at North Central, there likely would have been more than 100 students.

“The opportunities are much greater when you put four schools up there,” he said, adding that no matter what was decided, he’d support what the board chose to do “100 percent.”

Trustee Kim Durant said the four-school consolidation, sounded “great,” but was not what her constituents wanted. She said the premise of consolidating MES with the other three schools was something no one favored, other than Blackmon and Clyburn.

Durant said she was “absolutely against” a four-school consolidation and was also against a three-school consolidation, but supported the three-school consolidation over the four-school option. In interviews later with the C-I, Durant also said she would not vote in favor of the referendum on June 17.

“I voted for the lesser of two evils, but I don’t want three schools consolidated,” she said. “I wish we could keep our schools, but we’ve laid out the groundwork, so we have to move forward. This has been the hardest decision. It’s been absolutely gut-wrenching.”

Durant expressed her appreciation for Bethune citizens who had come forward at previous board meetings to support the two-school consolidation option. She also said she was a product of the small, rural school systems and was “so thankful for the experience going to Mt. Pisgah.”

Clyburn said he, too, would like to see all four schools stay open.

“But we just can’t do that,” he said. “What gets me is we have not had the first person come in here and ask us to keep Midway open. They came from Bethune. One lady (came) from Baron DeKalb; nobody from Mt. Pisgah. If those people are so set on keeping their schools open, this room ought to be full of people supporting that school. That’s the way I feel. If I want something done, I’m going to bring an army with me to get it done, but where are the people?”

Clyburn said he’s only received one phone call from constituents. Durant said she’d had at least seven and had “seen people” at other locations.

Trustee Don Copley said he could see the benefits of a four-school consolidation, but also responded to Clyburn’s comments on whether or not MES residents had come out in support of the school.

“I’m not sure we’ve given it a fair shake to see if they really want it or not because the lion’s share in this whole thing has been to consolidate three schools and leave Midway out,” Copley said. “So, there might be a good amount of people in the Midway area that might have opposition to it that don’t know that this is even part of the consideration. But, overall, I think we have one chance to get this right this year. Otherwise there won’t be a new Wateree Elementary, there won’t be a new Camden Elementary, there won’t be any of these things, because it’s an ‘all or nothing.’”

Blackmon’s motion for the four-school consolidation effort failed on a 4-4 tie, with Copley, Clyburn, Blackmon and Trustee Derrick Proctor voting in favor. Jones, Durant and trustees Shirley Halley and Matt Irick voted “no.” That led to the unanimous vote in favor of the three-school consolidation as part of the entire project list.

Members of Bethune Town Council and others reacted to the news of the board’s vote. Mayor Charles McCoy said he didn’t know what they’ve got against (Bethune).”

“Everything that’s got to be cut seems to come from us,” he said. “The school board does a good job, but they’re not thinking (about Bethune). They say it’s not political, but it is. Politics shouldn’t come into play.”

Councilmen Don Witham, John Fulmer and John Heflin also expressed disagreement with the board’s vote.

“My response to this is negative,” Witham said. “Our first goal was that they just leave our school alone. Our second goal, which was really a compromise, was the two school combination (of BES and MPES). Now our goal is to defeat this referendum. We fought for our (old) high school. And we lost it, and it has had a terrible impact on our town. The loss of the elementary school is only going to push that further.”

Witham suggested having BES students travel all the way to North Central could kill parental and grandparental involvement along with that of many Bethune civic clubs.

“We wanted a basic school here,” he said. “Our tax money will be used to add bells and whistles to other schools and we lose our school.”

Fulmer said he was disappointed.

“I thought we had a good dialogue with the board to keep our schools open. I thought we were making progress, but now it seems like we weren’t,” Fulmer said, adding that he, too, was not aware a vote would take place Tuesday.

Like Fulmer, Heflin said there was a sense that progress was not being made.

“To me, in modern-day society, we should progress not regress. It’s apparent that some individuals aren’t familiar with the distance some of these kids will now have to travel to get to school,” Heflin said.

He questioned whether the proposed “express bus” option would be similar to one discussed when Bethune High School closed.

“That never happened,” Heflin said, and encouraged trustees to ride existing bus routes with him. “There was a time when students from all over the county were bused to Jackson High School. I feel like we’re regressing back to that time period.”

Real estate agent Suzanne Gordon discussed how the loss of the elementary school would damage the structure of the town’s economy.

“I know how hard it is to convince folks that Bethune is the place for them to live when the schools were being threatened,” said Gordon, whose husband taught at Bethune High School; her children attended BES.

She talked about how, after being elected PTO president, she discovered BES had no air conditioning. Gordon said the PTO spent a year raising funds for new ceiling fans after the superintendent agreed to have them installed.

“How many other schools in Kershaw County had to have the PTO to put in fans and air-conditioning? I don't think you'll find any,” Gordon said. “Bethune schools never received their fair share of the tax revenues even though of all the elementary schools (being considered for consolidation), Bethune was self-supportive because they have the industrial plant that the other schools don’t have.”

Lisa Stover, a member of the BDK’s school improvement council, expressed her dismay at the proposed closures.

“I’m really not in agreement with this decision,” said Stover, the parent of two BDK students. “I’ve been opposed since it was first brought up. Our schools do need improvement and improvements can be done. The smaller classes and smaller school atmosphere is something we wanted to hang on to.”

MPES PTO President Beth Faulkenberry had a different response than those elicited by BDK and BES supporters.

“I think it could be a good thing for students to have new facilities and a fresh start,” she said.

In other business Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to approve proposed policy revisions; accept the Fiscal Year 2015 budget; and waive facility rental fees, but not custodial fees of Camden High School nor the city of Camden’s Junior USTA tournament.

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