Once again, the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees is taking up the task of deciding what to do about the North Central area’s elementary schools -- Baron DeKalb (BDK), Bethune (BES), Midway (MES) and Mt. Pisgah (MPES). Trustees spent time discussing various options during a nearly two-hour meeting Tuesday night in a large meeting space in the “back building” of the Kershaw County School District (KCSD) offices in Camden. All of the trustees weighed in with their thoughts on the best way to serve the county’s more than 10,000 students.
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 (ATEC) and three new elementary schools, along with improvements and renovations to the district’s three high schools, three of its middle schools and four other elementary schools.
Originally, the 2016 referendum would have closed at least BDK and BES in favor of a consolidated school near North Central Middle School (NCMS), but the language was later amended to provide just $1 million each for renovations at BDK, BES and MPES.
As the district made plans for how to allocate the $1 million at each school, it learned that state laws governing school renovations had changed so that any projects involving more than just new carpet and/or paint require entire buildings to be brought up to state codes, which would be more than $1 million for each school. This was after the district held a series of stakeholder meetings at each school to receive input on what renovations should be included. In fact, it was the stakeholder-generated list of items that prompted a code review by the S.C. Office of School Facilities (OSF).
In an email forwarded by KCSD Director of Communications Mary Anne Byrd on Thursday, KCSD Director of Operations Billy Smith noted that as part of their $1 million allocations, BDK, BES and MPES all received new digital school signs and the district spent $300,000 for a new roof at MPES following the stakeholder meetings.
As the district has been determining how to proceed, it has also been able to earn approximately $23 million through premiums on bond sales and interest that can be used to address school organization in the northern part of the district, according to KCSD Superintendent Dr. Shane Robbins.
KCSD Chief Financial Officer Donnie Wilson said thanks to the school district’s strong bond rating, the district actually sold the bonds for more than their face value.
“The folks who bought the bonds were willing to pay more than the face value of the bonds … so we sold $129 million face value bonds for approximately $148 million. Our good bond rating contributed to the premium as well,” Wilson said.
Robbins presented board members with four possible courses of action for the four schools, with the goal of “focusing our resources on student learning, quality people, excellent programs, as well as clean, safe and efficient buildings.”
Before doing so, Robbins went over the district’s long-range planning timeline that began in 2000-01 with the construction of Pine Tree Hill and Doby’s Mill elementary schools and NCMS, as well the renovation of Stover Middle School. In 2005, a report that had been developed to equalize facilities across the district led to Phase I of the district’s construction program began in 2008-10 with the building of new Lugoff-Elgin and Camden middle schools and Jackson Elementary School, along with several renovation projects and wellness centers.
Following passage of the 2016 referendum, Phase II kicked off with the construction of the Gil Woolard Technology Center (WTC) that will replace ATEC, and three new elementary schools -- Lugoff, Camden and Wateree. In 2018, the district underwent the OSF code analysis for BDK, BES and MPES.
“And that is when we started the process of what our options would be,” Robbins said. “What are we going to do that will be in the best interests of our children today and tomorrow, while respecting our history and our past?”
Robbins went over a list of facts to be considered and major issues that will affect any decisions on the future of the three elementary schools.
“Those facilities are really old and not compliant with current South Carolina OSF codes,” he said. “The building sizes do not allow for fair access across the district … in some of those schools we have a .2 or .3 guidance counselor. We can’t afford to have full-time guidance counselors or art teachers in (schools) that small.”
Robbins said the schools also do not have space for special education classes, related arts programs and all-day 4K programs, which the district has added for the upcoming school year.
“In some of these buildings, we have to move Special Ed kids to another site to provide the same opportunities,” Robbins said. “Decisions on (these) buildings have been sidestepped for years.”
In his presentation, Robbins also went over North Central area population demographics, historical enrollment in the district’s elementary schools, a per student cost at the four schools, a transportation assessment, and the cost for 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.
The four courses of action the board will consider are:
1. Build a new elementary school adjacent to NCMS on Keys Lane. Close BDK, BES and MPES and renovate MES at a cost of $19.9 million, plus 5 percent. Robbins said 5 percent should be added to all of the projected costs since the analysis was done “almost two years ago and the inflation rate has driven these numbers up.” The new school would have a 600-student capacity.
2. Close MPES and rebuild BDK and BES. Remodel MES. The cost of renovation would be $9.6 million for BDK and $17 million for BES, a total of $26.6 million.
3. Close all four north central elementary schools and build one school adjacent to North Central Middle School on Keys Lane. The cost of construction would be approximately $27 million.
4. Perform cosmetic repairs to BDK, BES and MPES without violating the OSF code analysis.
“Just as a reminder, if you do anything more than paint and carpet those buildings, then you have to bring them up to code,” Robbins said.
He encouraged board members to rank the four proposals in order of preference.
“That will give us some talking points and my marching orders for our next step,” Robbins said.
Board members each spoke about the proposed actions and the road that has led them to this point.
Trustee Kim Horton Durant, who represents much of the affected area, said when the referendum was proposed “we went to these communities and told them we’re going to give you a $1 million and you’ll keep your school open. Here it is two years later and we’re talking about closing these schools… We gave them our word as board members so how dare we come back and say we’ve had a change of heart… This is not what our communities asked for.”
Trustee Derrick Proctor said while he now believes a new consolidated school would be the best option for the north central area, he said three years ago the board gave BDK, BES and MPES the opportunity to grow their enrollments.
“Which they did…so I am struggling with this,” Proctor said.
Trustee Mark Sury said he believes this may be the last chance for that area of the county to “get a new school because eventually the economy is going to go down.” Sury said that at the time the decision was made in 2016 to give those schools $1 million each for improvements and renovations, it was still legally possible to make those changes.
“After the referendum was passed, new regulations came down from OSF that basically tie our hands,” Sury said. “The law that we are legally bound to follow has changed, so we have to reassess our options based on what we can legally do today.”
Trustee Todd McDonald said the district has built “grand new schools.”
“I stood and watched the kids and parents at these ribbon cuttings realize the potential and possibilities,” McDonald said. “As board members, we’re tasked with finding out and doing what’s best for our kids in this county. We’ve got to make a decision to give those kids (in the north central area) the best and same opportunities the people in Camden and Lugoff have gotten.”
Vice Chairperson Shirley Halley, who worked for the district for 36 years, said the board cares about “all the children in Kershaw County… We have some tough decisions to make and everyone in this room is not going to be satisfied but when you come down to the bottom line, we’re going to do what is best for the children.”
Chairman Dr. James Smith said the board has some very important decisions to make that will “economically and socially impact” the northern area of the county for years to come.
Also Tuesday, trustees unanimously approved a proposal to award credit to high school students in the Kershaw County School District for three courses: journalism, yearbook and unified physical education.
According to information attached to the agenda, the journalism course would teach students about the history, law and ethics of journalism by learning and using interviewing, writing, editing, and photography and desktop publishing skills to produce their respective school’s student newspaper. The course would also teach business management skills.
In a similar vein, the yearbook course would have students honing the same skills but put them to use creating their schools’ yearbooks.
Both classes are honors-level classes -- Honors Newspaper Production 3/4 or Honors Yearbook Production 3/4. Students must already have at least a B average in previous journalism courses: Journalism I, Newspaper Production and/or Yearbook Production 1 and 2.
In their applications, Camden High School (CHS) newspaper and yearbook advisors Amy Goodwin and Samantha Argondizzo noted that a growing trend in high school journalism programs is a lack of honors and advanced placement students willing to take classes beyond their sophomore years. This is because, they said, “…these classes do not carry an honors weight. Because of the way that the GPAs are calculated, upper level students’ GPAs are affected negatively if they take the class, even if they receive top marks. The publications, which are the primary historical documents for and of the school, suffer for this reason.”
Goodwin and Argondizzo suggested that students who have devoted three or even four years of their high school careers toward their school’s respective newspaper or yearbook “are no longer working as novices, but are progressing independently and at a faster pace and with more depth than beginners. These students are highly attuned to their audiences and the purposes of their publications through which they are communicating.”
As for the unified physical education course, it would provide “a unique opportunity for students with and without disabilities to come together through ongoing educational and physical activities, using the power of Special Olympics.” Such students may have the opportunity to participate in competitions with other schools or attend Special Olympics events.
Non-disabled students wishing to participate must already have one physical education credit, a 3.0 GPA, have no major discipline infractions, and a desire to assist Special Olympics-eligible students.
In other policy news, trustees gave second reading on several board policy changes. Earlier this year, the school board asked the S.C. School Boards Association (SCSBA) to assist with a review of its board policy manual. At its June 11 meeting, board members discussed proposed policy changes for Section C (General School Administration) and Section D (Fiscal Management).
In addition, the SCSBA is recommending a specific change to the district’s tobacco-free policy following an amendment in April to the S.C. Youth Access to Tobacco Prevention Act of 2006. The amendment changes the definition of “alternative nicotine product” by adding definitions for electronic smoking devices, e-liquid and vapor products.
“While every district already has such a policy in place, any applicable policy must be updated to meet the new provisions under the law,” KCSD Director of Communications Mary Anne Byrd told the board.
Byrd said it’s important to let students and their families know about the district’s tobacco-free policy. The district received a $5,000 grant from DHEC to help with signage and curriculum materials.
“That will go a long way in getting the word out,” Byrd said.
In other business:
• The board heard from Cleatus Ray, chairman of Kershaw County’s Special Olympics Planning Committee. “I’ve been part of this committee for the past eight years and it’s been the most fulfilling this in my life,” he said. Ray said he uses between 10-14 days of personal leave to get ready for the annual Special Olympics event. He asked the board to consider compensating the next chairman of the committee. “I’ve been contemplating ending my tenure for the past two years, but do not have a replacement at this time,” he said. “Let me be clear. I’m not looking for compensation (myself), but I think compensation would draw someone in who is more available and suited for it. I don’t know what the next step is, but I’m willing to assist in any manner.”
• Trustees conducted a review, led by Robbins, of the district’s policy on admitting non-resident students to classes. Non-resident students may be admitted on the basis of any of the following factors: 1) the payment of tuition; 2) families planning to move into the district; 3) students owning property; 4) children of employees; and 5) foreign exchange students. Students entering on a tuition basis must be released by their school of residence, and must meet and adhere to district attendance and discipline regulations.
• Recognized members of the Camden High School 4x400 Relay Team Class AAA Upper State Champions. “This is the second year in a row they’ve won it and they did it in a time of 4 minutes, 4.77 seconds -- 6 seconds faster than last year’s time,” Robbins said. He presented Lady Bulldogs Deniah Arthur, Imani Wyatt, Carleigh Vaughan and Staci Sumpter with plaques recognizing their achievements.
• Wilson provided a review of May 2019 financials.