One S.C. technical college’s 70-year history could come to an end if a recommendation by a state board is approved.
Faced with declining enrollment and concerns about the school’s finances, the president of the state technical college system is recommending Denmark Tech close its doors – at least as an independently run college.
Local leaders are worried about the effect of losing the small-town institution in an economically challenged rural area, 50 miles south of Columbia.
S.C. technical school system president Tim Hardee recommended to legislative leaders that Denmark Tech’s service area – Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties – be merged into a neighboring tech college.
“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,” Hardee wrote in a Jan. 30 letter to Gov. Henry McMaster and the chairmen of the S.C. House and state Senate finance committees.
Hardee said the state tech school system’s board would “strongly encourage” Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College to operate a satellite campus in at least one of the three counties now served by Denmark Tech, possibly on Denmark Tech’s current campus.
Last year, the independent board overseeing Denmark Tech was removed and the school’s operations taken over by the state tech school system. Enrollment at the school had fallen to 527 last spring from 1,678 in fall 2014, while the school’s net financial position fell to $285,000 from more than $9 million.
Hardee said 406 students from Denmark Tech’s three-county area already opted to go to another tech school last fall, including 318 enrolled at nearby Orangeburg-Calhoun.
“It is the opinion of the Board that the operation of Denmark Technical College as currently configured is not sustainable long term,” Hardee wrote.
Thomas Williams, chairman of Denmark Tech’s board before it was sacked by the state tech system, disputes that. At the time, Williams worried the state takeover would lead to Denmark Tech’s closure.
“We didn’t owe anything. People were being paid on time. There was money in the bank,” Williams said. “There’s no reason to make such a drastic decision.”
Denmark Tech was founded as a trade school for African-Americans in 1948, later becoming one of the state’s 16 two-year technical colleges. But that history sometimes has worked against the school, requiring students and faculty to work in older facilities than other tech schools, supporters say.
“All the tech schools were brand new, and Denmark Tech just rolled over, and they’ve been behind ever since,” said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, whose district includes the school.
Bamberg says Denmark Tech suffers financially.
The state gives it less money because Denmark Tech also gets federal support for historically black colleges. Meanwhile, the three counties it serves, among the poorest in South Carolina, give the school less support than other tech colleges get from county governments, Bamberg said.
That affects students. The school’s welding students, for example, are learning on equipment that is decades out of date.
Denmark Tech has taken steps to boost its enrollment.
For instance, it offered 2017 high school graduates in its three-county area the “Panther Promise” – covering all tuition costs not met by federal aid for two years.
“That’s a brilliant idea, but it needs more than nine months to work,” Bamberg said.
Bamberg wants Denmark Tech to continue operating. Still, he said he could “see potential positives” if its campus becomes a branch of Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College.
“The three local governments have got to step up to keep Denmark Tech viable,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “Everybody has to have skin in the game.”
Cobb-Hunter said lawmakers are “assessing” the tech board’s recommendation to close the school. But, she thinks, the preference is for a “streamlined” Denmark Tech to continue operating.
Effort to write new state Constitution quickly runs into trouble
A nascent effort to write a new S.C. Constitution, launched by a bipartisan group of legislative freshmen, quickly ran into trouble.
S.C. Democrats began abandoning the proposal Thursday, with leaders of the state’s minority party calling it an attempt to scale back women’s rights.
Chief sponsors of the bills, filed in the state House and Senate, said the proposal had nothing to do with abortion or reproductive rights and everything to do with fixing an out-of-balance power structure.
State Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, announced the filing of a pair of bills Thursday that call for a new state constitutional convention. Caskey, head of the House Freshman Caucus, said a state government “overhaul” is needed to rebalance the current system, which puts most power in the hands of legislators and relatively little in the executive branch.
South Carolina’s current Constitution was written in the aftermath of Reconstruction. In 1895, avowed white supremacist and then-U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman called a constitutional convention to deny voting rights to blacks – “the sole cause of our being here.” He played on the fear that blacks eventually could yield a powerful vote and, perhaps, win the governorship.
In the years since, S.C. governors have complained about their limited powers under that Constitution.
However, the state Democratic Party jumped on the effort to change the Constitution, calling it an “attempt to oppress every woman in South Carolina.”
In a subsequent message on Twitter, the Democratic Party said, “While the Republicans didn’t explicitly mention banning women’s reproductive rights in their proposal, we all know it’s on their agenda. Giving Republicans the power to rewrite our Constitution would present them with the opportunity to permanently restrict women’s rights.”
Several Democrats removed their names from the bill Thursday, with six remaining Thursday afternoon. No debate has been scheduled on the bills, which have been referred to the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
Getting the proposal on the November ballot – already a long shot in a legislative year dominated by the V.C. Summer debacle – would require two-thirds approval of the House and Senate. That is possible only with some Democratic support, meaning the proposal’s prospects are dim.
Asked about Democrats’ reaction, Rep. Caskey said he and other sponsors simply want to overhaul a 123-year-old system and create “three co-equal branches of government.”
“We know that this scares those that are entrenched in our current political system,” Caskey told The Associated Press. “But, to be clear, nothing that we’re attempting to do can curtail the rights and freedoms enshrined in our U.S. Constitution, no matter what hyper-partisan political hacks may say.”