S.C. Department of Education taking over historically failing Williamsburg County schools

COLUMBIA — The S.C. Department of Education is taking over 12 schools in Williamsburg County, making it the second district-wide takeover in less than a year.

State Superintendent Molly Spearman declared a state of emergency Wednesday for the rural district of about 3,800 students, citing major fiscal and academic problems.

That immediately fired the school board and superintendent. Principals and other district officials could “absolutely” be next, said Spearman, who largely blames the district’s failures on bad management.

All employees will be interviewed to determine who keeps their job, she said.

The district’s finances are in such disarray, the federal government forced the district to pay back $283,000 last year and to use an additional $368,000 to hire outside help on following federal spending and reporting requirements.

Combined, that means the district lost about half of the federal money it would otherwise receive for students with disabilities — money that primarily pays for teachers.

The district has been on notice since 2015 to fix the problems but has done little. Without drastic change, it will lose even more federal money, according to the state agency.

“Unless action is taken immediately, the most vulnerable children of Williamsburg County will suffer,” Spearman said. “Every student has enormous potential and deserves the opportunity to be successful.”

The district hits Spearman’s other “red flags,” too, which include failing test scores.

Last year, just 21 percent of third- through eighth-graders passed state tests for English and reading, and just 15 percent met math standards. Also, its student population has plummeted by 28 percent over the last decade. Ten of the district’s 12 schools are in accreditation trouble.

Williamsburg County is among the state’s poorest districts, with 90 percent of its students living in poverty. But a “lack of money is not the issue,” Spearman said.

The district receives nearly $17,000 per student when all sources are combined — several thousand more than the state average — mainly due to state and federal aid, according to the state’s Fiscal Affairs Office.

“It’s clear the district has failed to use these dollars effectively and efficiently,” Spearman said.

The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the district’s finances, too, following a request last week about one school’s funding, spokesman Thom Berry confirmed.

He didn’t identify the school. But D.P. Cooper Charter School in Salters is suing the district, claiming the independent public school is not receiving the money state law requires.

Spearman pointed to graduation rates as an indicator of the district’s academic problems. Hemingway High posted a 92 percent graduation rate last year — well above the state average of 84 percent for students graduating on time in four years — even though not a single 11th grader received an overall ACT score considered “college ready” and just one-third of high schoolers passed the state’s end-of-course tests across four subjects, according to its state report card.

“There’s something wrong there,” Spearman said. “They may be making straight As but they’re not getting the rigor.”

Spearman said she made her decision after meeting with hundreds of residents Tuesday night who asked for the state’s help.

Board Vice Chairman Linwood Cooper confirmed parents support a takeover.

Though he’d prefer “some other avenue” for making things better “the citizens were in favor, so that’s that,” Cooper said. “We have to go along with the decision of the people who elected us.”

Spearman appointed Rose Wilder, who retired last year as superintendent of Clarendon District 1 (Summerton) schools, to lead Williamsburg County’s turnaround effort, with a salary of $150,000.

There is no timetable for returning control to Williamsburg County.

“We’re not going to leave” until the district’s fiscal affairs are in order and there’s substantial improvement in student achievement, Spearman said.

In June, Spearman announced her agency was taking over the rural Allendale County school district some 18 years after the last emergency declaration in that county by then-Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, which failed to turn the schools around.

Since 1998, state law has allowed South Carolina’s superintendent to take over persistently failing schools or districts. Spearman’s predecessors have avoided doing so, largely because they didn’t want a repeat of Tenenbaum’s tenure.

Before leaving office in 2007, Tenenbaum said Allendale County’s “belligerent” school board made the already difficult job in one of the state’s poorest counties even tougher as members continually stirred up the community against state intervention. The state’s oversight officially ended later in 2007.

After Spearman’s announcement last year, the school board sued to get its powers back. An agreement weeks later which ended the lawsuit restored some authority to the board, such as giving final budget approval and hearing student discipline appeals.

In 2016, Spearman took over two of Florence District 4’s three schools. The status of the Timmonsville schools has improved but “we’re still not there,” she said.

“We’re still concerned about the stability of a district that’s very, very small and very difficult to make ends meet. They cannot afford the expertise needed,” she said.

Spearman is pursuing either a merger or at least some form of district-office collaboration with an adjoining Florence County district.

The Legislature has bolstered Spearman’s takeover powers beyond the 2008 law. A clause added in recent state budgets speeds up the process and lets the state schools chief make the decision directly.

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