Dillon schools Superintendent Ray Rogers gave a Midlands state senator a tour of J.V. Martin Junior High School a few years ago.
They stood in mobile classrooms that trembled as a train rattled past, bringing lessons to a halt several times each day. They passed through a sauna-like gym, which did not have a heating-and-air-conditioning system; the darkened auditorium, condemned by the fire department; and a former church, built in 1896, that held classroom and office space.
Let me ask you a serious question, Rogers said to the senator as the tour concluded. Would you let one of your children go to this school?
The senator Joel Lourie of Columbia shook his head no. And Rogers, equal parts embarrassment and sadness, fought back tears.
It has taken 21 years, a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan pushed by President Barack Obama, a nationally acclaimed documentary and an agreement by Dillon County residents to pay more taxes, but J.V. Martin finally has been replaced.
A new, $23.5 million, state-of-the-art replacement school, named Dillon Middle School, was dedicated Thursday in this small, rural town.
Dillon Middle and two other new schools one open and another to open soon are Dillon School District 4s first new schools in about 40 years. The schools are Dillon Countys biggest expenditures ever.
Most of the money is from a 4 percent, 40-year loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Dillon residents agreed to pay back through a penny-a-dollar increase in sales taxes.
The school board had attempted to get a loan from banks, but the sluggish economy made it impossible to secure one, officials said. That is when the Agriculture Department stepped to make the loan at the urging of the White House.
As Rogers stood on the new schools gym stage Thursday air conditioning pumping hard and the smell of new paint in the air he fought back tears again.
Today is amazing
J.V. Martin wasnt just an old school that needed to be replaced.
South Carolina has plenty of those, particularly along the Interstate 95 corridor where poverty and an increasingly criticized state school-funding formula lead to a chasm between poor districts, many rural, that patch and repair old school buildings and wealthy districts, many suburban, that boast modern facilities.
But J.V. Martin became a national symbol for faltering school buildings nationwide and a political rallying cry for Obama and other Democrats to approve stimulus spending.
Obama visited the school on the presidential campaign trail in 2007 as did the other Democratic candidates. Obama vowed to replace the school in his first congressional address, in 2009, after J.V. Martin student TySheoma Bethea sat down at a computer at Dillons town library and typed him a letter, asking for help.
People are starting to see my school as an hopeless, uneducated school, TySheoma wrote in her single-spaced letter. We finally want to prove to the world that we have an chance in life just like other schools and we can feel good about what we are doing. ...
Thursday, TySheoma, now 17 and a senior at Dillon High School, led students Thursday in the Pledge of Allegiance and cut the ribbon for the new school, officially dedicating it.
Today is amazing, to see it has come to light, to walk in and see the smiles on everyones face, said TySheoma, who has used her newfound fame to launch a career as singer. Her CD goes on sale this week. Its cover includes a photo of the old and new school.
It shows students they can do anything if they put their minds to it, she added.
Spencer Terry, 13, and other students agree. Last year, Spencer attended J.V. Martin. This year, he started this school year at the new Dillon Middle School.
This new school offers more opportunities, he said Thursday. We were limited at the other school.
Automatic lights snap on as students enter classrooms.
Each room is equipped with a smartboard, the modern interactive replacement to a chalk board.
Teachers walk their rooms with computer tablets that display their notes on the smart board for students to see. They speak into microphones that give them an undeniable presence to their students.
Weve got lots of space, lots of technology and we will teach our children to take care of it, to respect it, said James E. Moultrie, who has spent the lions share of his 48-year teaching career at J.V. Martin, teaching in a mobile classroom that rattled due to the trains and dodging mud puddles to get to the cafeteria for lunch duty.
While long ago eligible for retirement, Moultrie said he wanted to keep teaching until he got to see a new school for Dillon Countys children.
I told (Superintendent Rogers) I wanted to teach long enough to see the day when every seat, every desk is the same, he said, referring to J.V. Martins mismatched chairs and desks. I wanted to see a new school.
More work to be done
Many more S.C. schools are in need of repair.
A recession that cut into education spending at the local and state level and a new state law that limits local taxes for education means many schools are in disrepair.
Bud Ferillo whose 2005 documentary cast a national spotlight on dilapidated schools along I-95, catching caught Obamas attention says only three of the 12 schools featured in his Corridor of Shame film have been replaced.
Theres much more work to be done, Ferillo said.
A recession that cut into education spending at the local and state levels means many schools are in disrepair.
The state Supreme Court could have a big say in what happens next, when it makes a final decision in the states landmark school funding equity lawsuit. Some in education circles say that lawsuit, first filed in 1993, is so important that it is the 21st Century chapter of the Civil Rights movement.
The question is whether the state provides poor, rural school districts enough money to give their students the same minimally adequate education that students in wealthier communities receive. The state contends it does.
In May, the court issued an order, directing attorneys to reargue the case later this month.
Dillon Superintendent Rogers, part of the original lawsuit, says he knows school buildings arent as important as the quality of education that takes place in the buildings. But in many poor schools, its a matter of basic safety, he adds.
In 2000, the ceiling of a Dillon elementary school collapsed.
The teacher had just taken students out of the room, Rogers said. Do you think that doesnt affect the quality of education our kids are getting?
Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.