SUMTER, S.C. — A charter school is looking to expand in Sumter County, but some residents aren’t happy about the existing building it wants to use.
"I started school here in 1954," Sumter resident Roland Robinson remembers. "First grade."
Robinson attended F.J. DeLaine for elementary school. He says it’s been a staple in the Wedgefield community for decades, but that might change soon.
Liberty STEAM Charter school hopes to buy the property to serve more students and parents like Robin Thames and Chelsea Bowley, whose kids attend the current campus.
"It seems like their big vision is eventually to have campuses all over Sumter since there's not transportation for a charter school and that way they can service more kids in more localized areas," Thames explains.
"I know there’s tons of parents that are interested in Liberty and there’s a waitlist a mile long and I know that they would be all for Liberty growing and their children having the same opportunity my children do," Bowley adds. "Expanding in Sumter I think would be a great opportunity not only for the children in Sumter and the educational needs that are here, but also just for in the future just for Sumter in general, like for the growth of Sumter."
Liberty sent a proposal to the Sumter School District saying it wants to purchase the property located on Cane Savannah Road off Broad Street. County Councilman Carlton Washington believes this is not the right fit.
"There's a very rich and deep history associated with people in this community and specifically Black children who could not get a quality education," Washington explains.
It was originally a Rosenwald school, which aimed to provide education to Black children during segregation. It’s a history that Wedgefield residents, like local pastor Dorothy Maple, want to keep alive by keeping the building for the community.
"This is the heart and the hub of Wedgefield. Right here. It’s been here. It’s been built by people that are still living here," Maple shares. "And there's so much of a need right here in this community that is not being fulfilled."
Instead of giving the property to Liberty, they’d like a portion of it to be turned into a community center. President of the Sumter County branch of the NAACP Elizabeth Kilgore says while a charter school offers educational benefits, she would prefer that education be directed to kids in this community.
"With a public charter school, the students here may or may not be served," Kilgore believes. "But with Sumter School District, they will be served."
"It’s a part of our community," Robinson continues. "It's a legacy for us in this community, that the school remain here and if it takes it away I know the building won’t move, but the name will change."
According to Thames, that might not be the case. She says her children began attending Liberty when its first campus opened in a different old school building.
"When they first started, they didn’t have a name for the school and one of the ways they encompassed the old school that was there is they had us vote and they pulled in the old school...and they encompassed it into the new name of Liberty STEAM Charter," Thames explains. "And then on top of that they have had people that attended that elementary school way back in the day come and speak to the kids to kind of put a face to the children that ran down those hallways so many years ago."
Regardless, it goes beyond a name change, Washington says.
Another main point is a lack of transparency between the charter school and Sumter School District, according to Washington.
"[Community members] feel disrespected. It appears that there have been legislative maneuvers…about how to acquire the property without having one conversation with the community directly, without having one conversation with the other elected officials that represent this community," Washington tells me.
The charter school and Sumter School Board are unable to comment because lawyers are involved.
In documents obtained by News 19 between the legal representatives for the district and Liberty, the charter school has requested to purchase the building under a proviso that would make it eligible for sale if a school building is unused.
The district responded saying the building is still in use as a training center and storage location for the sheriff’s department and the school district. It also says it’s in the district’s capital improvement plans for future use.
The district says it’s continuing to evaluate its options regarding what that future usage will look like.
"We've discovered the school board itself has the authority to sell the school if it chooses to, but not by force of any proviso or any other state law that would require the school district to sell the school," Washington explains. "There's just so many other purposes that the school could be used for it could be used. As an IT hub. It can be used as a transportation hub. It could be used for food service, it could be used for adult ed. Just a number of things that it could be used for, in addition to sharing a portion of the property with the community."