The state of South Carolina has taken over another poor, failing school district — its second takeover within the past year.
State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman on Wednesday declared a "state of emergency" for Williamsburg County schools, saying the state Education Department will take over the district's daily operations indefinitely, including its financial decisions and hiring.
Meanwhile, one unidentified Williamsburg school is the focus of an investigation into "funding issues" by the State Law Enforcement Division, agency spokesman Thom Berry confirmed Wednesday. SLED did not identify the school.
Spearman named Dr. Rose Wilder as the district's superintendent, effective immediately. Wilder, who will earn $150,000 a year, succeeds Carrie Brock, who was fired by the state Wednesday, along with the district's school board.
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"When a district has continuous financial and programmatic issues that put its students at risk, as state superintendent, I am compelled to take action," Spearman said.
The state's takeover — its first since taking over the Allendale County school system in 2017 — comes as the S.C. Legislature wrestles with ways to pay for and fix the state's poorest, rural schools.
In 2014, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled those rural schools violated the state's Constitution by failing to provide each student with a quality education. However, last summer, the state's highest court dismissed the rural schools' lawsuit against the state, declaring school and state officials had resolved the dispute.
The state has tried to work with the Williamsburg district since the 2014-15 school year, Spearman said Wednesday. But that intervention has failed, she said.
As an example, Spearman cited the district's loss and mismanagement of about $650,528 in federal money — allocated through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. That money primarily is used by districts to hire special education teachers and for specialized instruction for students with disabilities.
The state Education Department said:
- The Williamsburg school district was found to not be meeting IDEA's federal requirements in August 2016
- In March 2017, the district had to pay back about $282,957 after it failed to spend the money on educating students with disabilities
- In August 2017, the state Education Department had to tell the district how to spend another $367,571 of its IDEA money
"Williamsburg County schools receive 74 percent of their $16,645-per-pupil funding from the state or federal government," Spearman said. "The district has failed to use these dollars efficiently and effectively."
The school district's deficiencies go beyond mismanaged spending, Spearman said.
For example, Hemingway High School has a 92 percent graduation rate — well above the state average of 84 percent and higher than the national average, Spearman said. But at the same school, only 12 percent of its seniors passed the end-of-course test for U.S. history and the Constitution in 2017.
Of the district's 10 schools and career center, only two are labeled as "all clear" for academic process, the state Education Department said. Seven schools are on an "advised" accreditation status, one is "warned" and one is on "probation."
In 2017, the Pee Dee area school district had just under 4,000 students, down from more than 6,000 students in 2000, according to its financial report for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017.
Williamsburg County — which has roughly 31,000 residents, down from about 34,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — has a nearly 30 percent poverty rate. Its median household income is just under $29,000.
"It's a sad day, and, certainly, I'm very concerned by the fact that we would need this kind of help as is evaluated by our education experts," said state Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg. But, he added, "At this point, we've got to trust their judgment."
Williamsburg County schools
- C.E. Murray High School
- C.E. Murray Middle School
- D.P. Cooper Charter School
- Greeleyville Elementary School
- Hemingway Career and Technology Center
- Hemingway Elementary School
- Hemingway High School
- Hemingway M.B. Lee Middle School
- Hope Academy
- Kenneth Gardner Elementary
- Kingstree Middle Magnet School of the Arts
- Kingstree Senior High
- Williamsburg County Adult Education
- W.M. Anderson Primary