SUMTER SCHOOL BOARD - ITS 4-YEAR TERM
Actions by a majority of the nine-member Sumter School District Board of Trustees influenced these conditions since the November 2018 election. The majority of the board does not reflect all nine members, however. There were typically five, six or seven in the majority on these matters.
* Passed on a fully-funded, new district high school technology center on Broad Street
* Violated the district's financial recovery plan by voting to reopen a school that was closed and consolidated into a nearby school by the previous board in April 2018. State superintendent placed district on "Fiscal Emergency" status for action.
* 136.5 teacher vacancies at end of last school year (14.4% of teacher count)
* On its second superintendent. Let previous leader go after unanimously naming her in 2019.
* Earned 2 mills of support from Sumter County Council. Was turned down for more than 10 additional mills.
* Closed no schools after 11.3% drop in enrollment since 2017. Instead, rezoned attendance lines for students to balance facility utilization.
* Removed the public from standing committees without public notice in 2021.
* An independent, local group established a public charter school (330 current students). Ultimate plan is for 2,000 students.
- Compiled by The Sumter Item (2018-present)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series on the nine Sumter school board district seats that are up for election in November. Each week leading up to Election Day, The Sumter Item will analyze a district (alternatively called area) race and interview candidates on the ballot. All candidates will be contacted. Online, this series, like other election information, will be free to read as a public service.
Candidate Q&As in their own words will also be included in our Vote 2022 Guide that will publish Oct. 1.
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Another week closer to Election Day, and many community stakeholders still stay it is the most important election in Sumter this year.
All nine seats on Sumter School District's Board of Trustees are on the ballot. This week, we look at another seat in the northern part of Sumter County and outside the City of Sumter, District 2.
After the school district's financial crisis became apparent in late 2016, the Sumter County Legislative Delegation added two seats to the seven-member school board in spring 2017. The delegation's purpose then in creating the new "at-large" county seats on the board was to bring additional focus and expertise to remedy the district's challenge.
Without an election that year, the delegation appointed the two trustees to the board, expanding it to nine members. In November 2018, these new at-large seats went up for the public's vote for the first time. Being at-large seats, every voter in Sumter County saw the race on the ballot, and the top two vote-getters won the seats.
The delegation specified in the original legislation that after 2020 U.S. Census' redistricting to account for population shifts, the school board would switch to nine single-member districts for the 2022 election and moving forward. This spring, the delegation had General Assembly staff members who handled state redistricting also reconfigure Sumter County's seven districts into nine. Law requires electoral districts to encompass equal populations in each.
That means while you may not have moved since the last election, you may vote in a different district than before. Voters can research sample ballots online at scvotes.gov or learn more in The Sumter Item's Vote 2022 special guide publishing Oct. 1. All Sumter County voters should also receive a new voter registration card detailing their districts.
The financial challenges of 2016-17 are resolved now largely because of the work of district staff and administration as well as attrition. After recording a net loss of $4.3 million in 2016, depleting the district's general fund balance to $106,449, the district notched gains every year since and ended 2021 with $32.6 million in its bank account. This fiscal year's audit will be released in December.
Meanwhile, the board that took over in late 2018 - which includes the superintendent who was in charge in 2016 before he retired in 2017 then won an at-large seat - has been often controversial because of its own actions and internal divisions.
Those started with voting to reopen a closed school and subsequently the state Superintendent of Education declaring a "fiscal emergency" in the district in spring 2019. More recently, the board voted 5-4 to remove the last district superintendent after unanimously naming her to the post three years earlier. The vote appeared to violate Penelope Martin-Knox's contract that required her termination to be approved by a supermajority, which would have been six votes. A judge also found the vote was illegal because the surprise motion was not on the agenda, meaning it violated the Freedom of Information Act, a situation revealed by reporting in The Sumter Item.
Special interests tend to dominate the board's activity and conversations over policy and student and staff achievement and wellness, even while public education faces increased competition in recent years with growing educational options available to parents and families. Add onto that a nationwide teacher shortage.
That all sets the stage for the upcoming election.
THE DISTRICT 2 RACE
The new District 2, also referred to as Area 2, is one of the larger districts in Sumter County in terms of geography because it is not densely populated. It runs from the northwestern portion of Sumter County (to include Rembert, Borden and Pisgah) down to some central parts on the perimeters of the City of Sumter. U.S. 521 is a western border in some areas, and the Crystal Lakes Golf Course area is a southern border.
Three candidates are in the race: incumbent Frank Baker and challengers Brittany English and John "J" Wrenn Jr.
Baker, the district's superintendent during the 2016-17 financial crisis and the longtime superintendent of the former Sumter School District 2, was the top vote getter in the November 2018 election and took one of the two at-large seats for a four-year term. Once districts were redrawn into nine single-member areas, Baker will vie to remain on the board in District 2, based on where he lives.
English and Wrenn both have never run for a political office before.
According to the South Carolina School Boards Association, only one former superintendent other than Baker in the state serves on the same district's school board. That is Buddy Herring with the Oconee County School District Board of Trustees in the Upstate. However, his superintendent post was similar to a board member in that it was an elected seat. In Sumter, the school board hires and can fire the superintendent.
Oconee was the last school district in the state to move to the board appointing a superintendent in the 1990s or early 2000s, according to Debbie Elmore with the state School Boards Association.
A native and resident of the Pisgah area in the northern tip of Sumter County, Baker served 40 years in the former Sumter School District 2, the last 19 as its superintendent. His tenure in that capacity concluded in 2011 when Sumter County consolidated its two school districts into one county-wide district.
After the consolidated district's first superintendent, Randy Bynum, resigned in July 2013, Baker was named the interim leader. Four months later, in November 2013, the district's seven-member board made him the full-time superintendent in a split vote. He retired in July 2017 in the wake of the audit revealing millions in overspending, which was not discovered to the public until the December 2016 audit presentation.
He is known to have a strong support base in the county. Baker is also a member of the Sumter County NAACP, whose leadership supports him as well.
He declined an interview request from The Item on Friday, saying he would prefer questions emailed to him. He did not respond to those emailed questions as of press time.
Baker is the school board's vice chair and chairman of the board's Transportation Study Ad-Hoc Committee, which directly assisted a third-party consultant with rezoning schools' attendance lines earlier this year.
A major result of the project will be moving students starting next year from higher-enrollment schools in the City of Sumter to lower-enrollment schools in the county, where he was previously the superintendent. The district's enrollment is down 11.3% since 2017, and the committee never considered consolidating schools.
In a questionnaire submitted to The Item for the upcoming Vote 2022 Guide, Baker said rezoning had not been taken up since consolidation in 2011, when it should have been completed, and that the committee did the best it could.
"The new plan may not be perfect; we will see how it works," Baker said. "I believe we did the best job we could to make the lines better with the least amount of disruption to students and families."
In 2019, Baker was part of the board's unanimous vote to name Penelope Martin-Knox its fourth - including an interim - superintendent since consolidation. He was also part of the slim majority of five trustees that did not want to extend her contract less than three years later in December 2021.
As far as challenges in the district, Baker noted in his submitted questionnaire that the district needs to do a better job with discipline with its new superintendent, William Wright Jr., in place. Other challenges he noted included academic ground lost with students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when the district went to virtual learning for an extended period of time, and also recruiting and retaining teachers.
As far as successes, Baker noted the district's technology initiative in the last decade and the expansion of dual-enrollment and early-college programs for students.
Baker holds bachelors and master's degrees from the University of South Carolina and a doctorate degree from South Carolina State University.
English is from Rembert and is a kinship care coordinator with the state Department of Social Services, based in Columbia. Her position entails providing services to families and children across the state.
She said she wants to translate her passion for making a difference in kids' lives to serving on the school board.
A Crestwood High School graduate from 2009, English has started her own nonprofit, the Larry E. Foundation, that has a focus on mentoring youth in communities, she said.
She has bachelor's degree in criminal justice and also a master's degree in the field. This is her first time seeking a political office.
Putting kids first in education has been a challenge for the current board and leadership begins with them, English said.
"The board has a lot of room for improvement," she said. "They need to have more of a focus on the kids and not themselves."
As far as goals as a trustee, additional mentoring opportunities for kids of all ages through volunteers is important, but she said she would not seek a personal gain for her foundation if elected.
Efforts to reduce bullying and increase parental involvement are also important.
"There are many ways to get the parents involved," she said. "I do it now through our organization. It starts at home, and it is a challenge but it can be done."
JOHN 'J' WRENN JR.
Wrenn is from Sumter and a 1985 graduate of Hillcrest High School in Dalzell.
His career includes 29 years in the military between the U.S. Army and South Carolina National Guard and said he is at a point in life where he wants to give back to the community in the form of community service, he said.
Wrenn wants the school board to have a "students-first" mentality, work as a team, seek more community input and avoid special interests.
He thinks his military career, which includes leadership experience, is a positive and makes him qualified. He said he dealt with large budgets in the military and that that will help him in the area of fiscal oversight.
Challenges for the district include recruitment and retention of teachers with so many vacancies and student achievement, which are correlated.
Wrenn has been the facilities director at Alice Drive Baptist Church since 2019.
"I want to continue to serve the Sumter community as an advocate for all the children in the district," he said. "We must put our children first and work together to provide them with the skills necessary to ensure their future success. I will be an advocate for all parents and students."
This is the first time he has run for political office.
"I am not looking to make this a political career," he said. "I believe in term limits. But this is just something on my heart to do and try and see what happens."
As far as successes, he noted the district's high graduation rate and wants to build more partnerships with local colleges, businesses and the military to create more seamless transitions for local students.
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