SC State House rally calls for Denmark Tech to stay open

Students, alumni and staff of Denmark Technical College hold a rally outside the South Carolina State House on April 3, 2019.
Students, alumni and staff of Denmark Technical College hold a rally outside the South Carolina State House on April 3, 2019.

Students, alumni and faculty of Denmark Technical College held a rally in front of the South Carolina State House Wednesday urging lawmakers to keep the school open.

“It’s the only technical (historically black college) in South Carolina,” said Mary Forrest, a second-year Denmark Tech student who attended the rally. “That’s history in itself, right there. I don’t know why we would want to take that history from our state and from our black students.”

For Forrest, Denmark Tech is the first step toward her dreams of becoming a “world-renowned OB-GYN,” she said.

“It’s the first step for a lot of people, not just myself,” Forrest said.

After years of plummeting enrollment at the school — down 82 percent since 2008 — state lawmakers are considering downgrading Denmark Tech to a trade school, which local officials worry would effectively close the school.

The loss in enrollment has created dire economic conditions at the college. In the next six months, Denmark Tech will run a projected $2 million deficit, which means other technical schools will have to suffer budget cuts to make up for it, S.C. Technical College System spokeswoman Kelly Steinhilper said in an email.

“This shortfall will impact the other 15 colleges in the system ranging from $25,000 for our smaller colleges to as much as $300,000 for our larger colleges,” Steinhilper said.

Denmark Tech, located in the Bamberg County city of Denmark, serves Bamberg, Allendale and Barnwell counties. It was founded in 1947 and has a current enrollment of 415 students.

Though Denmark has seen the most severe decline in enrollment, other technical schools have also had a modest decrease in enrollment, something that is common when the economy is going well, according to Inside Higher Ed.

As a result, many proponents of keeping Denmark as it is feel they are being unfairly singled out.

“You wouldn’t see this with other colleges,” Bamberg County Council Chairman Kerry “Trent” Kinard said at the rally. “If there was a chicken on the front of this podium or a tiger paw, we wouldn’t be here protesting today.”

Former S.C. state representative and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers, who also spoke at the rally, said struggling historically black colleges are unfairly singled out.

“They always want to take S.C. State...They always want to take Denmark Tech,” Sellers said motioning toward the State House behind him. “Just because that flag is down does not mean we’ve made it.”

In 2015, the state Legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

State Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, who has been a leading voice for keeping Denmark Tech a technical school, said the real concern is making sure people can get an education.

“Today the greatest threat to the American Dream is class,” Govan said at the rally. “This is not a black issue. This is not a white issue. This is a people issue... It’s about access.”

Lucas Daprile has been covering the University of South Carolina and higher education since March 2018. Before working for The State, he graduated from Ohio University and worked as an investigative reporter at TCPalm in Stuart, FL. There, where he won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his political and environmental coverage.