About a dozen Branchville High School parents and students told Orangeburg County school trustees on Tuesday they do not want to come to Orangeburg for their graduation ceremony.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Darrell Johnson said the decision to consolidate graduation ceremonies into one location was made with the intention to unify the county.
"As we move forward as one district, a unified district, new traditions begin this year in Orangeburg County School District," Johnson said.
Other single school districts in the state have graduation ceremonies in a single central location, he said. "It will help solidify unity and support the theme this year: 'We are one.'
Trustees voted 7-1 to require all schools to hold graduation ceremonies over a two-day period on the campus of South Carolina State University. Trustee Dr. William O'Quinn was the sole vote in opposition to the change. Chairwoman Peggy James-Tyler did not vote.
Under the proposal, graduations will be held on a Thursday and Friday with some on one day and the others on the other day.
The Branchville families were against the plan.
"Graduation is a special occasion that we want to continue at our school not at a location that has no meaning or significance to us," said Tracy Ott, a mother of two children at the school. "Having to travel to a central location could be a handicap for many family members who would like to see their loved ones graduate."
"Consolidation was supposed to be about benefiting our children," Ott said. "This is a tradition we don't want to see changed. Let's not fix something that isn't broken. Let our kids graduate in our high school gymnasium in a place that means something to them and their families."
Ott also noted many students have ordered their invitations.
The comments received applause from a number in attendance.
Prior to the vote, Branchville High School senior class president Cheyanne Gray expressed her concerns about the changes and the school losing its identity as the Yellow Jackets.
"Do not force Branchville into the mold of other generic school services,” Gray said.
O’Quinn said he disagreed with Johnson.
"I think we can be solidified as a district without mandating that each school has a graduation obviously in a central location such as Orangeburg. We should allow each individual school to make their own decision as to where they want to have their graduations,” he said.
O'Quinn asked where the change leaves students who have made arrangements and ordered graduation invitations.
"They have already put money out of their pockets to pay for these things," O'Quinn said. "Is the school district going to reimburse them for this?"
Johnson said the school district has not officially made any arrangements or sent out any programs for graduation ceremonies though individuals may have.
Trustee Vernell Goodwin questioned why invitations would be ordered so early.
"Invitations are not usually ordered until maybe March or April," she said. "At the same token, it can be corrected. Changes can be made. We have to realize we are one. If you don't agree with this, what other changes are we not going to agree with?"
Board Parliamentarian Rev. R.L Brown said, “There is no way you are going to please everybody.”
"You have to look at the big picture and try to please the majority," Brown said. "I understand and respect what was said about tradition but we are servants of the people. We have to keep that in mind when we make our decision."
Trustee Dr. Debora Brunson said she has as a granddaughter in the district who is graduating.
"I have no issues with her where she graduates from, my concern is that she graduated," Brunson said. "We like to keep those traditions going but we are about change now but moving forward we have consolidated into one county."
Following the vote, the audience members opposed to the change walked out of the board room with some saying, "I thought it was all about the children?"
District Director of Secondary Schools Kelvin Lemon said after the meeting that the district's supply company said it would provide invitations and graduation supplies to parents and students without cost if they already had their invitations printed and ordered.
In other matters, trustees unanimously approved to paying employees who had more than 90 days of sick leave in the 2018-2019 school year $40 a day for each day over the 90 days.
Johnson said it was brought to his attention that generally employees in the former Orangeburg Consolidated School Districts 3 and 4 were paid for sick days over 90 days but OCSD5 employees were not.
Following the meeting, Johnson said he did not know why the OCSD5 employees were not paid for the sick days, but said in the spirit of fairness the board decided it to make sure those who did not get paid are getting paid.
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Johnson said he was not sure how many employees qualify in this category.
District Chief of Auxiliary Services Robert Grant provided an overview of work going on throughout the district, including:
• The district is awaiting approval from the S.C. Department of Education's Office of School Facilities for several projects in the district including new roofing at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High, William J. Clark Middle, Howard Middle and Bethune-Bowman.
• The district is also awaiting approval from the OSF for work to be done on the elevator at O-W as well as athletic facilities in the district.
• Renovation work at Holly Hill-Roberts Middle School related to ceilings and gutters is scheduled for completion Sept. 20.
• Work on the Edisto High School athletic field filming platform is underway and the school's field house renovations will soon be bid out.
• Renovations to the press box of the Hunter-Kinard-Tyler High School will be postponed until the end of football season.
• Roofs at Holly Hill-Roberts, St. James-Gaillard Elementary and Vance-Providence Elementary are being studied to determine whether they need to be repaired or replaced.
• Complete inspection of the alarm systems in the entire district has been done with a determination of what schools and buildings need to have their alarms upgraded.
• The district is planning to enhance security at each district building and school by adding glass paneling requiring the public to walk into an office area rather than directly into the school. The cost estimate for this security measure would be between $15,000 and $25,000, depending on the size of the entrance.
District Chief of Human Resource Services Ernest Holiday said with a total enrollment of 12,334, the district has had to adjust staffing at schools to ensure the teacher-to-student ratio is even.
"There are sites that will get additional staff based on the greater projected student enrollment," Holiday said. "There are also sites that will lose staff based on the smaller projected enrollment."
Holiday said the district's human resource department has been working with the instruction department and school principals to take into consideration all programs at each site before any staffing moves are made.
Holiday said no programs will be lost as a result of the staffing decisions.
"We are trying to make sure we do not overcrowd classrooms. We are basing everything on the student-teacher ratio and trying to make sure that is consistent throughout the county," Holiday said.
Chief of Financial Services Michael Thom said putting together payroll for 1,900 employees by consolidating three different accounting systems was a monumental task. He said staff came in during the Labor Day weekend to make sure the Aug. 29 payroll was processed correctly.
"We received some late time sheets," he said. "We are working on a schedule for the future and we are hoping that doesn't happen again."
"No merger goes without issues," Thom said.
He said there were some issues with late direct deposit entries.
"Direct deposits usually take one or two paychecks," Thom said. "It does take time to process those."
Thom also encouraged employees to check their pay stubs to make sure all information is correct by looking on the employee portal.
In other business:
• Bethune-Bowman Elementary School nurse Aubrey Purvis was recognized for helping a parent who was having a medical episode at the school last week.
Purvis received an ovation for her actions as well as a certificate of recognition for going above and beyond in her service.
• Johnson thanked all those in the district who helped keep the children safe during Hurricane Dorian.
• District Chief of Instructional Services Dr. Lana Williams gave an overview of the district's gifted and talented services including how students get into the program and the various instructional methods/models used in the district for these students.
Countywide, a total of 499 students are in the district's gifted and talented program. There are about 55 teachers in the program.
• Trustees unanimously gave second reading of the district's policy governing instruction.