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With improved state funding stalled, rural schools "making do"

Published: May. 28, 2016 at 11:35 AM EDT|Updated: May. 30, 2016 at 12:29 PM EDT
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BISHOPVILLE, SC (WIS) - "The state don't care about the kids here," exclaimed a frustrated Mary Ann Holloman as she picked up her grandson Jaquarius Masslieno from the Bishopville Primary School Annex.  "It needs to be upgraded, upgraded to a better standard, upgraded to today, just today."

Lee County is one of the rural school systems that successfully sued the state of South Carolina demanding more equitable financing of poorer districts. However, with a plan for increasing funds for those schools likely stalled in the State House for the rest of this year's legislative session, county educators said they remain stuck in a patchwork pattern of repairs and fixes when what they need is large scale, big budget renovations.

Holloman declared that the old Bishopville Primary annex building has seen some improvements since she went to school there herself in the 1970s, but that, in some respects, it lacks features it had even back then.

"When we were going to school here, we used to play in the back. Now they don't have the equipment that the kids need to play. All they've got is two trees in the front. They need some more," Holloman said.

"We are talking millions of dollars for this school district," said Lee County Operations Director Rod Howell. "You can only make repairs so much. Some things got to be replaced. Roofs have to be replaced. HVAC units have to be replaced. Doors have to replaced. The hardware on the doors has to be replaced. You can't just keep patching the stuff."

"We have done the minimum of what we need to do to go into this building," explained Lee County Superintendent Wanda Andrews, pointing out cracked floor tiles, chipped paint, obsolete windows as well as classrooms and restrooms still unusable in the Bishopville Primary annex. "Some things are still exposed. Of course, all of it has a price tag."

Nevertheless, the annex building has become the focus of what Andrews calls Lee County's biggest budget-minded fix of the year. In the fall of 2016 the annex will effectively become the Bishopville Primary School, its student body surging from 175 to an expected 600. This comes as the Bishopville Primary School building itself closes down because the district cannot afford $1 million to replace its roof.

"We can't maintain both sites and we do have enough space in here now," Andrews said.

In anticipation of the change, maintenance crews have started work on long disused parts of the annex building. Large scale changes, like the creation of a faculty parking lot or the complete demolition of the vacant rear portion of the school, will have to wait, according to Andrews, but dozens of smaller projects were underway. The smell of fresh paint wafts through the hallways where workers have been patching, painting, caulking and repairing in classrooms, offices and restrooms.

In some cases, Principal Karen Long explained, the work may involve simple cosmetic "staging" to make students and parents more comfortable.

"You're making sure, 'OK, I don't want anybody see this,'" she said. "Let me put some books up here. I don't want anybody to see that."

"We will do as far as our money runs," said Andrews. "We will do as much as we can."

In the State House, current legislative efforts revolve around launching a study to assess the needs of financially struggling rural districts. For her part, Andrews called on state lawmakers to consider their priorities.

"We need to decide on our philosophy and what you really think about education in the state, and what you really think about the children. If they truly are our future, we need to treat it as such."

"To really have an environment to learn in, the environment has to be a little better than what we're getting in now," said Howell, "but we're making do."

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