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Orangeburg County’s three school districts are almost gone.

On July 1, the Orangeburg County School District becomes a reality.

"The arrival of July 1st means a new beginning and a start to equalize educational opportunities for all of the students in our county," OCSD Chief of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Lana Williams said.

Williams, who was the superintendent of Orangeburg Consolidated School District 4, said students will be the big winners when the county’s districts aren’t competing for resources.

"Students will be able to take advantage of all the wonderful things taking place educationally across our county versus just what they were exposed to in their individual communities," she said. "The opportunities to create multiple pathways of success for our students just became stronger, because we now have more resources across the board to help us in our quest to maximize the educational opportunities for students."

How we got here

Orangeburg County is no stranger to school consolidation.

The county’s three districts were created from eight during a consolidation in the 1990s.

Orangeburg County’s senators tried to pass a bill combining the three school districts into one during the 2013-2014 legislative session, but the effort failed.

In April 2017, they tried again.

Town hall meetings were held and often well-attended, with individuals expressing concerns about consolidation's impact on schools, the quality of education, school closures, special needs students and teacher salaries.

In May 2017, hundreds gathered at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College calling on lawmakers to hold off on a plan to consolidate.

Lawmakers approved a bill in 2017 requiring the merger of the three districts into one. They created an Orangeburg County Consolidation Transition Committee to guide the process.

Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed the bill, saying it should not have given the Orangeburg County Legislative Delegation control over the transition committee’s budget. Lawmakers were able to override the veto and passed new legislation addressing the governor’s concerns.

Over an eight-month period, the committee researched the three existing school districts and came up with recommendations for the new, single school district board.

It recommended, among other things, rolling back spending to 2017 levels to prevent a significant tax increase, equalizing salaries across the county, maintaining the current locations and programs for the district's special needs students and allowing interdistrict and out-of-district students to be grandfathered into the new school district and not have to change schools.

The process to get to “this historic day” has been filled with lots of work by a large number of people, Williams said. She was a member of the transition committee.

"The organization of the transition committee was definitely instrumental in helping us to begin to build a foundation from which we could work to make sure that the July 1 transition would be smooth," she said. "The three current district personnel did an outstanding job of sharing information on their present structures, organizational practices and communities to help in shaping what a new county district would look like.'

As the transition committee was laying the foundation for the new district, county voters elected nine new school board members from a field of 32 candidates in November.

Voters generally cast their ballots in support of candidates with education experience.

The nine board members elected are: Betty Macon Pelzer, Vernell H. Goodwin, William O’Quinn, Peggy James-Tyler, Idella W. Carson, Ruby Edwards, Mary Berry Ulmer, Ralph Lee “Poppy” Brown and Debora B. Brunson.

The new board held its first meeting on Nov. 27 in Orangeburg County Council Chambers.

It has been busy since that time.

It hired Dr. Zona Jefferson, a veteran Sumter County school administrator, in January to serve as the district's interim superintendent. She later announced she would leave, saying she took the job as a short-term position.

In May of this year, the board hired Greenwood School District 50 Superintendent Dr. Darrell Johnson to lead the new district through June 30, 2020.

Johnson has 32 years of experience in education. He has served as the Greenwood School District 50 superintendent for the past 13 years.

Jefferson said the foundation has been laid for the district to be efficient in providing a quality education for students.

The district's Finance and Human Resources Divisions will be functional on time, Jefferson said.

"The student data management systems are in the final stages of being merged," Jefferson said. "The Curriculum and Instruction Division is conducting a resource audit to ensure the correct instructional tools are in place. Title I plans are being developed. The pupil data management systems are merged and are in the review process. The partnership with OCtech continues to be an asset for students."

Jefferson did note that one of the challenges in preparing for the new district has been staffing.

"Placing the right person in the right place at the right time is the goal, and we continue to work on that goal," she said.

But she is confident the transition will be a smooth one.

"As with most transitions, although much has been done, there is more work ahead," she said. "There is a good administrative leadership team in place to handle the unforeseen challenges."

In its last major decision before officially assuming control over the county's school system, the school board on June 25 approved a $134.2 million spending plan for the district. This is about $4.7 million more than the combined budgets of the current three districts of $129.5 million.

Trustees optimistic

"I feel great about where we are now," OCSD Board Chairwoman Peggy James-Tyler said. "Dr. Jefferson has worked extremely hard and I am anticipating Dr. Johnson coming in and building on what she has already started and taking us even further."

James-Tyler is optimistic about the new district.

"Our children will have many, many more opportunities. I am looking for the community, our teachers, our students, all of us to have a big celebration and am just looking for great things to happen for Orangeburg County schools,” she said.

School board trustee Vernell H. Goodwin is optimistic the change will benefit everyone.

"I would hope first of all and foremost to know that this will be one countywide district that will represent all students," Goodwin said.

In order for this to occur, Goodwin said it will be important for each board member to “get the districts out of our minds” and to not focus on “self-agendas” but to do what is best for all.

"The main thing I am looking forward to is moving this Orangeburg County school district in a form of excellence for all our students having the same opportunity no matter where they are located," she said.

Goodwin said she believes Johnson will, “bring clarity, fairness and transparency for everyone.”

Trustee Idella W. Carson says she’s looking forward to “getting on with the education of our children.”

"I hope we have a very successful year," she said. "We might have some bumps and bruises, but we are all on the same page and that is the future of students as good citizens."

Carson says consolidation will be a benefit to the county's education system because it will help equalize the playing field.

"Some districts had more to offer and it is not fair that those students in the outer areas did not have the same privilege as other students in Orangeburg," she said.

Trustee Ruby Edwards said she believes, “the citizens of Orangeburg are willing and ready to do this.”

"I think it will be great for the children," she said. "Orangeburg County has always been good with education, but it will be even better for the children where they will all be treated equally and fairly so all our students will prosper."

"This day means exciting new ventures coming for our students, teachers, faculties, staff and community," former OCD5 superintendent Dr. Jesse Washington said. "Continuity and consistency across all aspects of our districts will be priority."

Washington will serve as the district's new chief information officer.

"All of our students across the county will have opportunities for success," he said. "All students will reach heights of social equality and access."

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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