South Carolina lawmakers are fighting to keep open the state’s only historically black technical school.
The 44-member S.C. Legislative Black Caucus wants to prevent Denmark Technical College from being transformed into a “trade school,” a move school supporters say would spell the end of Denmark Tech as it’s known.
If the proposal is approved, “In effect, it will close as a school,” state Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, chairman of the Black Caucus, said during a Monday press conference at the State House. “At a time when the General Assembly says education is a priority, singling out Denmark Tech is the wrong approach.”
Those in favor of the proposal, including state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg — who is not a Black Caucus member, but serves as the 13th president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators — say this is the best way out of a bad situation.
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“This is the best course because the only other option that people have discussed is closing it and I don’t think we should do that,” Cobb-Hunter said. “For me, it’s a matter of keeping the doors open.”
Asked why the change from technical school to trade school matters, Denmark Tech Interim President Christopher Hall said, “The difference is a high school credential versus a college credential.”
In 2017, the state’s technical college system took over operations at Denmark Tech in an attempt to revive it from its financial woes and plummeting enrollment, according to a previous article in The State.
Last year, the S.C. Technical College System called for Denmark Tech to be absorbed into Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. Asked for comment Monday, the agency said its position had not changed.
“Given the college’s average decline in fund balance, we anticipate the college will be operating at a deficit within six months,” S.C. Technical College System spokeswoman Kelly Steinhilper said in an email. “The operation of Denmark Technical College, as currently configured, is not sustainable long-term.”
If Denmark Tech starts operating at a deficit, the state technical college system will have to pull money from the state’s other 15 technical colleges to keep Denmark Tech from going under, Steinhilper said.
Asked if Denmark Tech can remain a technical college with more moderate changes, Cobb-Hunter said: “I don’t see how from a financial standpoint.”
Since 2008, enrollment at Denmark Tech — located in the Bamberg County town of Denmark — has decreased from 2,277 to 415, a decrease of 82 percent, according to data provided by Hall and the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
In response to the falling enrollment, Hall said the college is expanding in-demand programs such as advanced welding and is seeking to add new programs such as pre-pharmacy and funeral services.
“We are growing and advancing our vocational offerings,” Hall said. “We train workers for companies and guide our students in all that they need to become laborers that add to the workforce South Carolina needs.”
State Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, who voted in favor of the proposal during last month’s budget debate in the House Ways and Means Committee, on Monday said he changed his mind during the press conference.
“I voted for that proviso in Ways and Means because I was told that was the only way to keep Denmark Tech open,” Hosey said.
Keeping open Denmark Tech — which serves Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties — means more than keeping open the state’s only historically black technical college, its supporters say. It’s also an economic force in the impoverished area, according to Bamberg County Council Chairman Kerry “Trent” Kinard, who also spoke at the press conference.
The school’s economic impact is estimated at $32 million, according to a 2014 study from the United Negro College Fund.
It’s unclear how that economic impact would change if Denmark Tech were to become a trade school, but Govan said, “It would drop in a very significant way.”
In an area besieged by layoffs and closing industries, “Denmark Technical College is one of the greatest resources we have in Bamberg County,” Kinard said. “On and on and on, the hits just keep coming.”
Despite the boon to local government, it’s unlikely they can contribute more than they already are, Kinard said.
“There is no way we can fund it any more as a county,” he said, adding, “because our citizens are already starving.”