Nearly 700 citizens filled the Kingstree Senior High School Gymnasium April 11, to hear what South Carolina Department of Education Superintendent Molly Spearman had to say about the status of the school district. The crowd was surprised to hear how badly things are and many had questions. The following day Spearman announced a takeover of the district. The news hit hard for many who are alumni or have children in the district.

Minnie Lee Lambert is a mother of a special needs child in the school system. Her child is one of the many special needs children that have been affected the most by the mishandling of approximately $650,000 in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) federal funds. The funds are generally spent on special education teachers. Lambert’s child has lost those years. “This is valuable time that’s been took away from our children that they will never get back,” said Lambert, adding. “I hope this brings a positive change. I think that it was the first time a lot of people have heard it and to actually see it on the screen did a lot of good.”

Lambert was amazed how the board acted like it was news to them. “The thing that I don’t understand is they keep saying the schools are in this situation because we don’t have industry. But yet, what industry wants to come in somewhere that has a failing school district,” said Lambert who sees the same problem with teacher recruiting. “And that’s the first thing a teacher looks at coming in. They don’t want to come here and bring their families where they have a failing school district.”

Cassandra Williams Rush is a graduate of Tomlinson High School. “I am disappointed that our actions and failure to follow guidelines have evolved to the point, where the State Department of Education has to take over the management of the Williamsburg County School District,” said Rush, a former chemist and engineer who holds a Masters in Public Health in Environmental. “We were given numerous opportunities to address the concerns over the years, failed to take the recommendations seriously and did not make the necessary corrective actions.”  

As current president of the Tomlinson Alumni, Inc., Rush hopes this lesson will be one that is beneficial to the educators, parents, students, community, politically active, concerned citizens and every entity in Williamsburg County. “We must do the right thing in order to get the right result,” she said. “As one of my dad’s former students told me a couple of months ago that a statement he remembers from my dad was ‘If you do what you are suppose to do, be where you are suppose to be, then everything will be alright’. This is an opportunity for us to become more informed, perform our due diligence and make informed decisions in the future. Let us all is all about and for our students.”

Leandrea Montgomery is curriculum specialist at Greeleyville Elementary School and a graduate of C.E. Murray High School. “I knew there were some shortcomings at the district. The school system is not how it was when I was coming up,” said Montgomery. “It’s definitely been a change as far as the overall climate.” Montgomery believes the takeover is good to some extent, but as with anything there are pros and cons. “I think some parents aren’t truly aware of how much of a difference this will make. We as the local community do not have any say-so. That means if they want to close down any schools they would like, even if we protest we can’t do anything about it because we have to go with what the state thinks is best for our district.” Montgomery also hopes the funding issue will be corrected but again is cautious. “The backhand of it is that we as a community do not have a say-so about what the state does,” he said. “Hopefully we can get everything resolved and we can go back to how it was back in the day.”

A Washington D.C. resident, Benita Bettard graduated from Kingstree Senior High School but never left her roots. “As a current taxpayer in this county, I am triply saddened and just horrified,” said Bettard in an email. “I expect and must demand better accountability of the spending of our tax dollars.”

Bettard said for the last 25 years she has lived and worked in a community, where the schools system is said to be number one in the country and what is going on in Williamsburg County is no joke. “Education is taken very seriously for its own merit and also for the benefits to economic development of the area,” said Bettard who has worked in several local governments across the country as an urban researcher, urban planner, staff coordinator, as well as chief of staff to an elected official. “I have watched time and time again as companies looking to relocate have touted the well educated populace and the excellent educational system as their main objective in their decision making.”

She believes in the definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way over and over again but expecting better results. “So, if the current system is not yielding results that are effective and is not measuring up to the metrics required by the state assessment, then without a doubt, change is in order,” she said. “You know, it takes a strong, confident, and benevolent leader to say OKAY… my way has not worked…for the betterment of my children and my community…let me let you try your way because we all will benefit in the end.”

Michael Allen is a native of Williamsburg County. Allen graduated from Kingstree High School in 1978 and has a degree in History Education from South Carolina State University. After learning about South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman’s announcement to take over the school district, he started calling his classmates and citizens who are native to the soil. “The word consistently was ‘saddened’,” said Allen who recently retired from the National Parks Service.

Allen said that they agreed that everyone must be realistic, understanding and patient. “When Ms. Spearman made her decision which she legally can, we have to look for and hope for and pray for the best.” Allen’s main concern is that the department of education will be transparent and the community, parents and students fully understand the dynamics of what has occurred. He said his group wishes to help the new superintendent in any way they can. “How can we help to bring a sense of optimism to those who have to wake up to this,” said Allen. “Those of us who are native to the soil, who finished school in Williamsburg County want to be a support, a help and a conduit.”

Allen discussed with his classmates the possibility of participating in the Kingstree Senior High School commencement ceremony since it will be their 40th anniversary since graduating from the school system. “The place they will be sitting, we sat 40 years ago and look where we are 40 years later. That may be encouraging to them,” said Allen.

Allen referred to the situation in a historical context. This is the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Constitutional Convention that was held after the Civil War. African American men such as Beaufort native Robert Smalls crafted the document. “At the convention, Robert Smalls got up and said every child, without regard to race or color, needs to have a proper education in the state of South Carolina,” said Allen. “He also said that we should have a superintendent of education in place to ensure this happens. Ms. Spearman was able to do and say what she said the other night because of what a formerly enslaved illiterate, uneducated, African American delegate said 150 years ago.”