Letting their voices be heard

African-American pastors speaking out against school district officials

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Several African-American pastors in the community are speaking out against Sumter School District's superintendent, and some are extending blame to the school board for the district's current budget crisis.

At least 10 members of the Concerned Clergy of Sumter County were in attendance Monday at the Sumter School Board of Trustees' meeting at Wilder Elementary School, according to the clergy's immediate past president, and a few spoke during public participation.

Several members were contacted this week by The Sumter Item seeking additional comments on who they believe is responsible for the district's financial crisis.

Two months ago when the district's audit for last fiscal year was presented to the board, it revealed the district overspent by $6.2 million last school year and had a general fund balance of $106,499 as of June 30, 2016, according to auditor Robin Poston.

Due to the improper budgeting, which passed through to this year's budget, the board approved an emergency financial plan proposed by Superintendent Frank Baker on Jan. 12 to try to preserve more than $6 million in cash for the remainder of this fiscal year. Those measures included eliminating 47 jobs, reducing stipends, and freezing various budget line items including substitute teacher budgets and supply budgets by 50 percent.

The concerned clergy's official stance in the financial crisis is to ensure the children in the district, or students, don't suffer educationally in the various cost-saving measures that are now being implemented, according to several members who spoke to the Item.

"The concerned clergy is not against the superintendent; we are for our children," the Rev. Marion Newton told the school board Monday night during public participation. Newton is senior pastor at Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church.

Also, at Monday's meeting, the board heard outside financial consultant Scott Allan's official report on what caused the district to overspend by $6.2 million last fiscal year. An overflow crowd of more than 300 residents were in attendance at the meeting. Allan said 37 unbudgeted new hires and drastically underbudgeted expenditures for other existing personnel were the major contributors to the district's overspending last year. According to Allan, a total of 49 new positions were added last year that were not approved in any way by the district's finance department.

Allan's analysis showed 23 of the 49 new jobs not authorized by finance were actually approved by Baker, but appropriate funding only covered 12 of them. The other 26 new hires were not approved by Baker.

Baker has said he discovered the budget deficit in October when the auditor began her work on the annual audit. Board members have said they didn't know of the deficit until the auditor's presentation Dec. 12.

"I'm not saying Baker is a bad man, or he hasn't done good in the community," Newton said Wednesday in an interview. "But, what I am saying is, after hearing this report from the consultant, I don't see how the board can say, 'Let him stay.'"

Newton said the various cost-saving measures, including a lack of substitute teachers and overcrowded classrooms, are jeopardizing the children's education. Newton also said several board members worked under Baker when he was superintendent of the former Sumter School District 2 before consolidation, or have spouses that currently work in the district for Baker, and that the board is focused on personalities and not their communities. Newton said three board members formerly worked for Baker in District 2, and two have spouses that formerly worked in District 2 and currently work in the one consolidated Sumter district. That information was confirmed by a district spokesperson Thursday, and actually the other two remaining board members also have similar connections to Baker (see sidebar).

"The board is not doing their job," Newton said. "They are not thinking about the children, but saving the administration. ... Under those circumstances, it's hard for them to vote for Dr. Baker to be dismissed.

"How can we have a consolidated district when the board is stacked with District 2, and their allegiance is to Dr. Baker who has done favors for them, naturally."

Newton said board members who have this attitude should resign and not continue with the board. He believes the majority of the board is not doing a good job because they haven't been asking questions.

"We don't have a functional board," Newton said. "The board is governed by the administration, instead of the administration being governed by the board."

The Rev. George Windley Jr., pastor First Baptist Missionary Church and immediate past president of the Concerned Clergy of Sumter County, says the association wants accountability for whoever caused the district's financial crisis.

"The clergy wants the board to represent the people and your area," Windley said. "Do what's right and represent your area, or are you doing what's best for yourself or because this is my buddy? It boils down to accountability."

In regards to board members acting based on their allegiences to Baker, Windley said it appears that way but he hopes it's not.

"You have a feeling that's going on," Windley said. "I just hope that's not what's going on, and we as the concerned clergy hope it's not."

Similar to Newton, the Rev. Willie Wright, pastor of New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, believes the board and Baker are to blame.

"I would give all of them a 'D-' to 'F,'" Wright said. "And, that is based on the idea that not only did they fail to live up to the trust of the community, but they were not forthcoming with a lot of the information that the public was asking."