The current turmoil in Sumter School District threatens the remarkable progress we have made recently in Sumter. Our schools have highly motivated educators who prepare children for the future and young people who are eager to learn. Prospects for a technology high school - our next "big step" in continuing to improve the lives of our citizens - were looking very good; but then came the audit for the 2015-16 fiscal year. And now the South Carolina Department of Education has placed our district on "fiscal watch" due to financial irregularities, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is investigating the district.
How did the district get into this mess? How did it spend $6,226,760 more than it had in revenues during the last fiscal year? When did the superintendent and board know about the deficit? What we are told is that the board and/or superintendent were blindsided by this budget deficit. It is hard to believe that the district was suddenly hit with millions in unanticipated expenses in the last month of a fiscal year or that the administration and the board did not know of it until the audit some three to six months later.
The board has not addressed the issue of culpability for the district's financial failures. Any administrator in the public or private sector would have lost his job under similar circumstances. Yet the district superintendent, who is ultimately responsible, has not been held accountable. The Department of Education and SLED inquiries will likely answer the questions we have, but Sumter cannot wait for these investigations to be completed. We need positive action now.
The district hired a financial expert to advise it but rejected his advice to close four very small schools. The continued operation of these four schools, with a combined enrollment of less than 800 students, takes resources away from 17,000 other district students. Closing four inefficient schools this year or two such schools this year and two more next year could have had the district back on the right path quickly.
The current situation is an embarrassment, but the real consequences are that it is damaging economic development, affecting decisions about living in Sumter when one is assigned to Shaw Air Force Base and impeding our growth and prosperity generally.
We have signed this because we recognize how critical great public schools are to Sumter, and we know how the current problems are hurting us. Each of us serves on an entity charged with making Sumter the best that it can be, but the statements in this column are our own. None of our agencies has taken a vote on the matter of our public schools, but we are confident that almost every civic leader agrees with what we write above.
It is time to change the course of Sumter School District and to work together for great schools in Sumter. Before this can happen, the board of the district must show courage and leadership. Every citizen has many reasons to want great public schools, whether he or she has children in the public schools or not. For instance, the school district's budget is greater than the city and county budgets combined, and over half of the property taxes you pay goes to our public schools. But the biggest reason is the future of Sumter - our young people.
Editor's note: Steve Creech is the former mayor of Sumter and chairman of the military affairs committee of Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce for the past 15 years. Sumter native Jim McCain was elected to Sumter County Council District 6 in 2014 and is now the council chairman. He has also worked on the County Planning Commission. Joe McElveen is mayor of Sumter and was recently elected to serve his fifth four-year term. Greg Thompson is a Sumter School District Finance Committee member and is president and CEO of Thompson Construction Group Inc. and chairman of Thompson Industrial Services LLC.