Two familiar faces to Sumter School District are on the ballot for the only contested race in November to join the district's nine-member board of trustees.
Of the four candidates for the nonpartisan seat for which board Chairman the Rev. Ralph Canty decided not to seek re-election, William Byrd and Bonnie Disney are former trustees and spoke Friday on their candidacy.
The Sumter County Legislative Delegation appointed both Byrd and Disney to the school board on July 31, 2017, after a financial crisis was discovered in the district with the release of the fiscal 2016 audit in December of that year. The district had overspent its budget by $6.2 million that year, draining its fund balance to $106,449.
The delegation wrote legislation to add two voting at-large members to the board to better address the financial difficulties in early 2017, and it became law that spring.
That summer, Byrd and Disney were unanimously appointed to the seats and would serve 16 months until those seats went up for election in November 2018.
During their tenures on the board, the trustees voted 5-3 to close two low-enrollment schools to save money amid the crisis, and Byrd and Disney were part of the majority.
Both said the school closures (F.J. DeLaine Elementary School and Mayewood Middle School) were hard decisions but based on facts, helped ensure all students in the district received a quality education and helped the district become more financially solvent at the time. The two schools had suffered major declines in enrollment during about a 15-year period, and there was an opportunity to consolidate both into nearby schools and add instructional programs to benefit students as well, they said.
The district had operated for nearly two years without a credentialed chief financial officer.
Debbie Hamm served as the district's interim superintendent in the aftermath of the crisis and when the at-large positions were appointed.
Due to a health challenge, Byrd was not active on the school board for the final four months of his appointed term in 2018. Though he filed for the November 2018 election to run for an at-large seat, he didn't campaign and received a small percentage of votes.
A certified public accountant and financial consultant, Byrd operates William Levan Byrd CPA Professional Corp. at 207 E. Liberty St.
A Sumter native, Byrd was a graduate of Sumter High School's first integrated class in 1971.
Before being appointed to the at-large seat in July 2017, Byrd served a few years on the school board's Finance Committee. He maintained his position on the advisory committee after becoming a board member.
As a candidate, Byrd said he wants to ensure every student in Sumter has the same opportunity that he had to receive a quality education.
With his accounting background, experience in corporate America with Philip Morris and in the federal government, Byrd said he thinks he can assist the district with its management practices.
Byrd said he understands the district has turned its finances around in recent years but knows future funding challenges may occur, given COVID-19.
He has achieved numerous professional licenses and certifications in his career across accounting and business fields and is chairman of the audit committee for the South Carolina Legal Services Corp. He has also served on numerous other boards, he said.
Byrd said the district's advancements in technology with Chromebooks was a right step and is helping today, given the pandemic and virtual learning.
Byrd said he thinks he has the prerequisite skill set to benefit the district.
His vision as a trustee would be quality education for every student, he said, and to be as supportive as he can of the superintendent.
"My lead as far as education is concerned is rooted in the superintendent," Byrd said. "That is the subject-matter expert, and that's the person who I think needs to bring forth the programs, policies and procedures, and we are just there as a resource to help process it. That's how I see myself as a potential trustee member."
As far as community involvement, Byrd is a commissioner with the Sumter Housing Authority, a longtime member of the NAACP and a member of New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, among other activities.
In the election two years ago, Frank Baker - who was superintendent during the budgetary overspending - was the top vote-getter with 10,029 overall votes, and Shawn Ragin - who runs a private school, Ragin Preparatory Christian Academy - was second with 7,531 votes. Disney was a close third with 7,002 votes.
Disney was an English teacher at Sumter High School for 13 years and spent more than 30 years in public education. From 2000-05, she worked for the state Department of Education as a teacher specialist on site helping struggling districts with achievement. Disney worked four years assisting Summerton-based Clarendon School District 1 and then one year with Lee County School District.
In 2008, she was appointed by the state's Fifth District Legislative Delegation to serve as a board member on the South Carolina State Board of Education.
In retirement, she still had a hand in public education, serving as a full-time consultant for a variety of schools through an organization associated with the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Her five children all attended public schools and also her grandchildren.
She said she prides herself in working in public education.
Having been a teacher, Disney said she knows how important they are and that she understands the role of a parent as well.
"I know how important teachers are because I have been there," Disney said. "I know that the teacher is the backbone of an education system, and if we don't support our teachers we will lose them. I understand what it means for a school board to support the teachers and to support the students. As a parent, I understand what we needed as parents for our children to be successful."
She said she can be a benefit to a successful school district given her background in academics and curriculum, especially with so much virtual education going on now during COVID-19.
Disney said the district's efforts to advance STEM and STEAM is moving schools in the right direction and that the pandemic has been a "huge challenge." She said she thinks it's important for Sumter to get to a hybrid/blended model as soon as possible, given the importance of face-to-face instruction for children.
"Having taught for 30-plus years, I now can see places our students have gone," Disney said. "One of my former students is now a head pediatrician at Prisma. That's why this is so important. They are kids today, but they will be leaders in medicine, finance and government tomorrow, and we need to do everything we can to give them the best education possible."
In the area of community involvement, Disney is a commissioner with the Sumter Housing Authority and has also served as co-chairperson of Sumter County's Census 2020 Complete Count Committee.
Registered voters who live in the school district's Area 6 can vote in this race. Sumter's school board districts are the same as Sumter County Council districts.
Byrd and Disney also face Gloria J. Rose Lee and Jay Linginfelter.
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