In 2006, Secaida D. Howell was nearly the 10th superintendent in as many years to lead Bamberg School District Two in Denmark, S.C. He inherited antiquated policies, teacher certifications falling through the cracks, and waning student achievement.
The district’s destructive path was highlighted in the 2005 Bud Ferillo documentary Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools. Referring to districts along South Carolina’s I-95 corridor, the film chronicles eight plaintiffs in a suit of 36 districts against South Carolina that sought funding to provide an appropriate education in some of the country’s most economically depressed districts. “It’s something you’d want to see,” says Howell of the film. “When all of the districts put light on the issue, while Denmark is small, we’re seeing what’s spent elsewhere, and where we’re not getting our piece of the pie.”
Denmark is an extremely poor, rural community, with all the attributes that go with that, says Howell. The district is comprised of three schools, with students who are predominantly African-American and on free and reduced-price lunches. “We are not a rich people by any stretch,” Howell says. “But we are people. Our students are like any other students in the country: They want to be given a future.”
That was then. Howell can now tell a tale of Bamberg’s public schools that is as rags to riches as it gets. He faced a $162,000 deficit the day he started, in 2006, and a review of the previous five years showed a trail of errors after botched renovations of school buildings left grossly mismanaged, overcharged change orders, and schools that were too small and with too many teachers.
Hope turned to reality when district auditors finalized Bamberg’s audit for the year ending June 30, 2008. The district had a surplus of more than $1.1 million, setting it on its way to fiscal sustainability. “With the nation’s economy in decline and our state reducing funds, for our school district to have built a fund balance to this level is amazing,” says Howell.
“The new state allocation of penny sales tax and property relief tax funds helped with our district’s budget,” says Howell. As for the district’s gross debt incurred by construction nightmares, Bamberg’s district retired $330,000 in principal on general obligation bonds, and the debt service fund balance was decreased in one year from $172,373 to $133,696 as of June 30, 2008.
Howell’s district received significant state help, but moving the budget from red to black started at home. The biggest change was the elimination of administrative and teacher positions that weren’t needed. “We started doing this in July 2006,” says Howell. “We [evaluated] the number of staff we didn’t need. Superintendents are taught to keep as much out of the general budget as they can. We have solicited a number of grants and placed teacher salaries in the grants, so it relieved the general budget to alleviate it.”
Teacher cuts didn’t affect parents in the district, who Howell says, “really don’t get into academics,” but they disrupted the morale of his staff that now had to teach multiple sections of their specialty. “It really did cause some angst,” says Howell. “But they soon learned to deal with it.” Howell credits Denmark-Olar High School’s increase in SAT scores by 120 points last year to his staff.
In 2007, Bamberg began making the progress for which Howell had hoped. Denmark-Olar High School recorded the highest gains in the state’s region on the High School Assessment Program (HSAP), a test required of all South Carolina students in order to graduate. And the high school graduation rate increased from 73 to 79 percent. “We are now in the process of getting all three of our schools accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools,” Howell says.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.