The 13-member governing board of the state's technical college system has issued a letter recommending that Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College take over Denmark Technical College's service area, saying the Denmark school can no longer operate as a standalone college.
The letter issued Tuesday to state government leaders recommends OCtech expand its service area to provide technical college training and education to students in the Denmark Tech service area.
"We recommend that Denmark Technical College no longer operate as a stand-alone college and that Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College’s service area be expanded to include Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties," members of the South Carolina Technical College System and State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education wrote in the two-page letter dated Jan. 30.
"We strongly encourage Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College to establish a satellite campus in at least one of these three counties," the letter went on to state.
The State Tech Board, which governs the 16-college South Carolina Technical College System, issued the recommendation in a letter addressed to Gov. Henry McMaster, Chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee Hugh Leatherman and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Brian White.
The letter was signed by S.C. Technical College System President Tim Hardee and State Tech Board Chairman Ralph A. Odom Jr.
The letter cites a number of reasons for the recommendation, including "irreparable problems stemming from declining enrollment, a lack of financial stability and neglected facilities" at Denmark Tech.
"This is not a recommendation that the board makes lightly," the letter reads. "Denmark Technical College has had a long and valued history as one of the state’s historically black colleges and universities."
"The college’s service area includes some of South Carolina’s most rural, economically challenged areas, making access to a quality technical education even more essential," the letter continues. "Taking all the facts into careful consideration, it is the board’s belief that expanding Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College provides the 45,000 citizens of Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties with the quality technical education and training they deserve and presents the best path forward for future sustainability."
The State Tech Board said the recommendation was made with "input from key stakeholders."
"It is the opinion of the board that the operation of Denmark Technical College as currently configured is not sustainable long-term," the letter states.
The letter cites the college's declining enrollment over the past several years from 1,678 in fall 2014 to 523 in fall 2017.
"This past fall, 406 students residing in the three-county service area -- Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell -- opted to attend one of the surrounding technical colleges instead of Denmark Technical College," the letter states. "A large majority of those students (318) chose to attend Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. This lost enrollment has had a substantial negative impact on the college."
The letter also cites "prevalent and ongoing issues with financial stability and internal controls" at the Denmark college.
"The past two fiscal year audits have indicated material weaknesses and significant deficiencies in internal control," the letter notes. "During this same period, after removing the impact of the state pension liability, the college’s unrestricted net position decreased by $4.8 million (approximately 70 percent) from a balance of $6.9 million as of June 30, 2015 to a balance of $2.1 million as of June 30, 2017."
"Unrestricted net position balance represents resources available for general college operations, so such a precipitous decrease, coupled with the decline in enrollment, heightens concerns about the college’s ability to continue operations in future years," the letter continues. "Additionally, the college’s facilities – buildings, infrastructure and equipment – have been severely neglected over the years, rendering some areas unusable today."
The letter goes on to address the impact of DTC's instability on the entire state tech system.
"As a system, the deficit of one institution becomes that of the others," the letter states. "Accordingly, any shortfalls incurred by Denmark Technical College because of the issues listed ... would be addressed as a system, negatively impacting funds available for the system’s other 15 institutions," the letter states.
The issuance of the letter was done in accordance with Senate Bill 480, which was signed by McMaster in May 2017. The bill transferred the oversight of Denmark Tech from the local area commission to the State Tech Board until November 2018.
Also included in the legislation was the requirement for quarterly reports to the General Assembly and the governor and the requirement for the State Tech Board to submit a recommendation to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the Governor by Feb. 1.
State Tech Board spokeswoman Kelly Steinhilper Tuesday said the letter is only a recommendation and any action to make the transition a reality will have to be done legislatively.
"If the General Assembly decides to move forward, I would assume changes would be made to the composition of OCtech’s commission to include representation from the expanded counties," Steinhilper said. "At that time, any decisions regarding the specific operations, offerings, etc., ... would be decided by the OCtech Commission."
OCtech Area Commission Chairman John Shuler said he had just received a copy of the letter Tuesday and that he and the rest of the board need to be able to digest and discuss what position to take on it.
"We are willing to do what we can, but we are not willing to kill our institution to take on someone else unless we are going to get some support from those three counties and some help from the state to help fund this situation," Shuler said.
He said that beyond the State Tech Board recommending OCtech take over Denmark Tech, there has been little concrete discussion about details or what that would look like.
"We have nothing in writing that says what their plans are and what they intend," Shuler said.
OCtech President Dr. Walt Tobin acknowledged DTC's history of providing "opportunity to countless African-Americans throughout the state who otherwise, at some point in our state’s history, would not have had access to higher education."
"It’s unfortunate that the college has gotten to this point," Tobin said in an emailed statement. "Although the recommendation has been made to expand our service area, the decision to move forward, as I understand it, rests with the S.C. General Assembly."
"The 16 colleges are uniquely positioned to serve their respective areas, and I hope that a solution can be reached that benefits Denmark Tech and the citizens of the three counties she serves," Tobin said, declining further comment due to the lack of additional information.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the State Tech Board letter's recommendation is concerning in terms of what it will mean for both DTC and OCtech.
"I was hoping the report would give us a blueprint for moving Denmark Tech forward," Hutto said, noting the letter, instead, shows the State Tech Board does not foresee the college being sustainable with an enrollment that has fallen 68 percent in the past four years.
Hutto said declining enrollment means declining tuition, which means declining funding. He noted funding is a critical component looked at by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools when accrediting a college. SACS is scheduled to visit Denmark Tech in early March.
The projection is that the college will most likely be put on probation by SACS at that time, Hutto said.
When asked if he foresees legislators supporting the State Tech Board's recommendation, he said the likely thought process will be to see if enrollment will increase at Denmark Tech through the fall in hopes its funding predicament will turn around.
He said he encourages parents and students in Allendale, Barnwell and Bamberg counties to choose Denmark Technical College as their desired place to receive a technical college degree.
"They (students) are voting with their feet," Hutto said, noting that sister institutions such as OCtech are receiving students in the DTC service area.
He said the last thing he and others want to see is the college close.
"Nobody wants to close off the opportunity for students to have access to a technical college education," Hutto said. "If the facility has to be viable under the auspices of Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, people see that as better than closing."
The legislator said it is too early to tell what exactly an OCtech satellite campus would look like, but he said if legislators do approve that route, OCtech would obviously need more funding, and transportation services from Denmark Tech to OCtech would need to be provided for students.
He said he envisions students still taking classes at Denmark Tech even under a new arrangement.
Attempts to reach Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, and Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, were unsuccessful.
The concept behind the State Tech Board's recommendation is not without precedent. Last spring, state lawmakers suggested OCtech's board take over Denmark Technical College as a contingency plan if the governor did not appoint a new board for Denmark Tech.
Some senators at the time were concerned about having the State Tech Board assume control over a single college out of the state's technical college system.
A Senate bill, sponsored by Hutto last year, was filed to have OCtech take over Denmark Tech. The bill unanimously passed the Senate but never made it out of the House. In that scenario, the governor would have appointed individuals to serve on a Denmark Tech Board.
The news of the State Tech Board's recommendation Tuesday came as a surprise since Denmark Tech officials had cited improvements at the college in a second-quarter status report presented to the S.C. General Assembly in the fall.
The State Tech System reported the college was operating within budget despite a decrease in student enrollment of about 17 percent.