State takes over Williamsburg County schools, citing financial and academic failures

Molly Spearman, S.C. Superintendent of Education (SCDE)

The S.C. Dept. of Education is taking over the Williamsburg County School District.

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman made the announcement in a press conference Wednesday, after declaring a "state of emergency" in the Williamsburg County School District.

The decision comes in response to financial mismanagement, systemic issues, and poor student academic performance, a press release from the education department says.

"When a district has continuous financial and programmatic issues that put its students at risk, as state superintendent, I am compelled to take action,” Spearman said.

As a result of the takeover, Spearman says Williamsburg County's school board no longer has authority in the district, and superintendent Carrie Brock has been fired.

Spearman says the state education department has been working with Williamsburg since 2015 to address issues, but Williamsburg's leadership failed to fix the problems.

Spearman said Wednesday she witnessed a "lack of urgency" in meetings with Williamsburg's school board and district officials prior to the decision for the state to take over.

According to Spearman, state officials met with Williamsburg school leaders last year and gave them a one-year timetable to correct more than 60 deficiencies. Spearman says the changes weren't made.

"I wasn't going to wait any longer," Spearman said of the decision to take over. "[The school board] had a lot of opportunity to take action and to push urgency, and I just did not see that."

One of the greatest problems Spearman spotlighted Wednesday was the district's mismanagement of over $600,000 from the federal government -- most of which was earmarked for special education.

"That money usually is spent for special education teachers, so it means they did not have teachers on the ground delivering the services to their most vulnerable students," Spearman said of the impacts the mismanagement had.

Spearman says the state went through the district's finances back to 2011, and found Williamsburg had not met federal obligations requiring the district to spend every federal dollar it receives in order to continue receiving funding to the tune of $267,000.

As a result, the state had to seize that money from Williamsburg County and write the U.S. Dept. of Education a check for $267,000 in 2016. That money wound up "not used in Williamsburg County nor in South Carolina on any of our students," Spearman says.

Given a year to correct issues with its management of federal funds, Spearman says Williamsburg failed to do so, resulting in the state having to seize control of another $360,000-plus in federal funds that must be spent by September 2018, or it too will have to be returned to the federal government.

"Most any other district would have had this cleared up well within one year's time, and we're moving into our third year," Spearman said.

Spearman says there also were issues with the district's mismanagement of Title I funding, but the district did correct those.

In addition to the federal funding issues, Spearman says the district had repeated negative audit findings at the state level. Williamsburg receives 74 percent of its funding from the state, Spearman said.

"It's clear that the district has failed to use these dollars effectively and efficiently," said Spearman. "These students deserve better. ... Lack of money is not the issue in this place. This is money that has not been managed well."

Another major issue, Spearman says, is that of the district's 10 schools, only two have a clean academic accreditation status.

"District wide student achievement has been at some of the lowest levels in our state for many years," Spearman said. "I cannot and will not stand by while our students get left behind because of the poor decision making of adults."

According to Spearman only 21 percent of students in grades 3-8 last year met or exceeded state standards in English-Language Arts, while only 15 percent met or exceeded standards in math and only 19 percent met or exceeded standards in science.

As one example of academic problems, Spearman pointed to a large disparity in graduation rate and test scores at Hemingway High School.

According to Spearman, Hemingway has a 92 percent graduation rate, which is above both the state and national average. However, students' performance on exit exams at the school weren't nearly as exceptional.

"When you look at their high school exit exams and high school end of course tests ... 12 percent pass the end of course, but yet 92 percent (graduate)? There's something wrong there," Spearman said.

Spearman also said there also were substantial problems with record keeping and developing of individualized education programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities.

"This goes beyond just the money," Spearman said. "This is basic things in serving students with disabilities."

Each student with a disability must have an IEP, Spearman says, and those IEPs must include goals for each students and records of their progress. Spearman says those kinds of records were not being kept.

"When we went in, only about 7 perecent of the records had the correct information in it," Spearman says. "Even after working with them for two years on this, and with us going and doing a lot of the work, we're still only at about 35 percent of those records being accurate."

"When I found out that information just last week when we sent our folks in to do an audit again, that's why I said somebody is not working as hard at this as they need to," Spearman added.

According to Spearman, her mind was made to declare the state of emergency and state takeover after a community meeting with over 700 Williamsburg County parents and stakeholders on Tuesday night.

Spearman has appointed Dr. Rose Wilder, a longtime former superintendent in Clarendon County, as interim superintendent in Williamsburg County.

Spearman says the state will maintain control of Williamsburg schools until substantial growth in student achievement is seen, and until staffing turmoil and turnover in the district is resolved.

According to the S.C. Dept. of Education, the state superintendent is allowed by state proviso to declare a state of emergency and to have the state take over a district if it loses its accreditation, most of its schools fail to show improvement, if the district is classified as "high risk" status financially, or if financial mismanagement results in a deficit.”

The state in 2017 similarly took over the Allendale County School District, and two schools in Florence County in 2016. Allendale has sued the state, saying the takeover was unconstitutional.

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