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Trustees deadlock on North Central schools
School Board - Robbins and Smith
Kershaw County Board of School Trustees Chairman Dr. James Smith (right) argues against closing three North Central-area elementary schools and consolidating students to a new one near North Central Middle School during Tuesday night’s school board meeting as Kershaw County School District Dr. Shane Robbins looks on. (Gee Whetsel/C-I)
School Board - Irick and McDonald
Earlier during the same discussion, Trustee Todd McDonald (right) argues in favor of closing the schools as Trustee Matt Irick looks over some notes. The vote failed on a 4-4 tie due to Trustee Dr. Don Copley being absent. (Gee Whetsel/C-I)

The Kershaw County Board of School Trustees was unable to come to a consensus on what the future will hold for four elementary schools in the North Central part of the county at its meeting Tuesday. With Trustee Dr. Don Copley absent, trustees deadlocked 4-4 on whether or not to consolidate Baron DeKalb (BDK), Bethune (BES) and Mt. Pisgah (MPES) elementary schools, build a new elementary school adjacent to North Central Middle School (NCMS), and renovate Midway Elementary School (MES).

This means the schools will remain open for the foreseeable future.

The board took two votes. First, the eight trustees voted unanimously to consider any of four options presented to them during an earlier meeting in order to address students’ needs at the North Central-area schools.

Then, Trustee Todd McDonald motioned to go with Option 1, which would have built a new consolidated elementary school on Keys Lane adjacent to NCMS; close BDK, BES and MPES; and renovate MES.

Voting in favor were McDonald and trustees Ron Blackmon, Matt Irick and Mark Sury. Voting against were Board Chairman Dr. James Smith, Vice Chair Shirley Halley and trustees Derrick Proctor and Kim DuRant.

The tie vote meant that McDonald’s motion failed.

“There is no course of action that is adopted this evening and we will go back ‘into the prayer closet,’” Smith said afterward; beforehand, he had reminded his fellow trustees, “We’re dealing with communities, families … and whatever we do will have consequences.”

At the board’s July meeting, Kershaw County School District (KCSD) Superintendent Dr. Shane Robbins presented the board with four possible courses of action for the four North Central-area elementary schools, with the goal of “focusing our resources on student learning, quality people, excellent programs, as well as clean, safe and efficient buildings.”

During that presentation, Robbins went over North Central population demographics, historical enrollment in the district’s elementary schools, per student costs at the four schools, transportation assessment, and the cost of code compliance renovation at the schools. The cost of renovating the schools exceeds the cost of demolishing and rebuilding in almost every case, he noted.

Assuming trustees take up the issue at a subsequent meeting, the four options are:

1. Build a new elementary school adjacent to NCMS on Keys Lane; close BDK, BES and MPES and renovate Midway Elementary at a cost of $19.9 million, plus 5 percent. The new school would have a 600-student capacity. (This is “Option 1” that failed Tuesday evening.)

2. Close MPES and rebuild BDK and BES elementary schools; remodel MES; the cost of renovation would be $9.6 million for BDK and $13 million for BES.

3. Close all four North Central elementary schools and build one school adjacent to NCMS on Keys Lane; the cost of construction would be approximately $27 million.

4. Perform cosmetic repairs to BDK, BES and MPES without violating an Office of School Facilities code analysis.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Robbins went over the four options again, reminding trustees how the district acquired the funds to address the needs of the elementary schools.

In November 2016, Kershaw County voters approved a penny sales tax to fund a $129 million bond referendum for Phase II of the district’s long-range capital improvement plan, which included construction of a new Applied Technology Education Campus (which will be known as the Woolard Technology Center) and three new elementary schools; and improvements and renovations to the district’s three high schools, three of its middle schools and four elementary schools.

In addition, the referendum provided $1 million each for renovations at BDK, BES and MPES.

Robbins and KCSD Chief Financial Officer Donnie Wilson explained in July that, in addition to interest earned and thanks to the district’s strong credit rating, those who purchased the 2016 bonds did so at more than their face value, providing an additional total of $23 million for the district’s to use on bond-related projects.

During Tuesday night’s public forum, BDK Principal Betty Turner spoke, asking trustees to use “facts not feelings” to do what is best for all the students in the district. Turner shared information about BDK, saying smaller schools are vital to the community. She said because the school has faced possible closure over the past several years, each new school term begins “with a dark cloud of uncertainty” about the school’s future.

“In 2008, we were below average and at risk, but you know what? We looked at what we could control,” Turner said. “We couldn’t control all the things that were going on, but what we could do was create an atmosphere for our school and our students, that no matter where those dark clouds loom, when they walk into our building, they were safe. And that’s what we did. And I’m proud of our school.”

Turner said thanks to hard work and dedication on the part of BDK’s staff, the school and its students have made enormous strides.

“Yes, we feel very strongly about our school,” she said. “We went from below average and at risk to excellent… We hold our children to a standard and have high expectations,” she said.

Turner said while she knows change will happen, she wanted board members to know about the many good things going on at BDK.

“We have clubs, we have a STEAM program,” she said. “We want what’s best for our students. We’re a small school with a big heart -- that stands for ... commitment and courage.”

Turner urged board members not to rush into a decision about BDK’s future.

“Bells and whistles do not guarantee success, but creating a culture and a climate where our children feel loved and appreciated do,” Turner concluded.

Former Bethune Town Councilman John Fulmer also spoke and said many people in the community still have questions about the possible closing of three elementary schools in the northern part of the county. His questions addressed finances and time students spend riding buses.

“Mt. Pisgah, Baron DeKalb and Bethune elementary schools offer an environment that every student, parent and teacher want and deserve,” Fulmer said. “That is a small, safe school environment where learning is individualized, (and), therefore, enhanced. All these schools receive numerous academic awards and recognitions that result because of the small school environment they offer. We beg you to please allow these schools to keep their status as places of progressive learning and achievement.”

Ahead of the vote, trustees spoke about why they wanted to see a new, consolidated school built, or why they wanted the smaller schools to remain open.

All board members agreed that the third and fourth options -- to close all four north central elementary schools and build one school adjacent to NCMS, or to perform cosmetic repairs to BDK, BES and MPES  -- were not viable courses of action.

DuRant said she feels strongly the district’s small schools should remain open.

“I apologize to my community,” DuRant said. “I feel like you were misled by the referendum that we would keep your schools open… I feel like your votes were stolen… Those rural schools have done so well and the community thrives around the school. Test scores are evidence of that.”

DuRant said the board has heard from many citizens.

“(They) want to keep our community schools intact. Why can’t we just do what we said we were going to do? I just feel like we misled our communities and I just don’t think it’s fair,” she said.

McDonald said he believes in small, community schools and that it can be a struggle to find the right answer.

“It sounds to me like we are sending kids to three schools that are unsafe, so can you really vote to send kids to schools that are unsafe and just give them $1 million?” McDonald asked. “Because we can’t afford to renovate all three schools… We’re tasked with the responsibility of doing what’s best for the kids and we’re talking about maybe creating a brand new culture, home and environment that fosters education and learning and the best for Kershaw County.”

Blackmon said he supports providing the children of the north central area with a new, state-of-the-art school near North Central high and middle schools.

“I envision an educational complex that would be second to none, he said. “You got one chance; you got 22, 23 million dollars and you can have a state-of-the-art, first class school.”

Blackmon said the district would save money and be able to offer more programs and opportunities to students if a new school were built.

“My job is to think about the kids. It’s gut-wrenching to say ‘close a school,’ but we’ve got enough money for you to have ‘first class,’ for the first time, probably. Why would we deprive the children of that? This is our opportunity now,” Blackmon said.

Chairman Smith said the board must have a long-term vision for opportunity, expansion and growth as well as economic development.

“I don’t believe in looking at short-term,” he said. “We have an opportunity here to prepare for growth… By rebuilding and renovating some schools we will be saving money in the long run and preparing for that growth.”

Halley said it’s time for the board to make a decision.

“It’s time for us to stand up for what’s right,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball to see what the future holds or a hidden agenda. And whatever decision is made is not going to take place tomorrow. It will be two years down the road, but I do know we have to do something. When you’re indecisive, you give people hope for something and they may not get it. We have to make a decision and it’s not going to be an easy one.”

In other business, board members:

• recognized Camden High School student Wills Kelly, who won the Class 3A state golf championship in May, firing a 3-under 67 and finishing the event at 141, four shots better than his nearest competitor; and

• received an update on academic eligibility from Tim Hopkins and Skip Lax with the S.C. High School League.