Can this takeover of Allendale schools make the difference?

Allendale County schools are known for a number of things, none of which is excellence.

SC Supt. Molly Spearman

SC Supt. Molly Spearman

The dysfunction starts at the top. Back in the ’90s, a school board member was accused of pulling a knife on the board chairman during a budget discussion. He was later, it should be said, acquitted.

A while later, then-Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum took over the district for a time, and for a time, things got better. But what gains there were were lost in the decade since local folks resumed control.

Now, Molly Spearman is trying again. And she’s laying the blame for the schools’ failure squarely upon the local officials:

“Management decisions that put self-interests ahead of our students’ achievement are unacceptable, and I will not stand by while students get left behind because of decisions the adults are making,” she said.

She declined to give specifics, other than to say whenever a new principal or superintendent attempted to make changes, Allendale County’s board intervened, and that nepotism can be a problem in the county of fewer than 10,000 people. Officials should make decisions based on “what’s best for students, not their relatives,” Spearman said….

She’s not being specific, but what she’s implying sounds pretty disgusting. Nevertheless, the local officials seem unashamed of themselves, since they’re suing to stop the takeover.

It will be interesting to see on what grounds local officials argue they should maintain control, given their record.

Locally-run schools are a great thing, when a community has the capacity, commitment and integrity to run them. Apparently, Allendale has again shown that it does not. Under the principle of subsidiarity, things should be run by the smallest and most local entity with the competence to run them. In Allendale County, that would appear to be the state.

Here’s hoping that this time, progress sticks. But I wonder whether that’s even possible unless the state keeps control indefinitely.

26 thoughts on “Can this takeover of Allendale schools make the difference?

  1. Doug Ross

    Allendale is just one of many with similar problems. Mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, uninterested parents. I’m glad Spearman didn’t suggest throwing more money at the problem as Allendale has consistently spent more per student than any other district.

    I wish she’d suggest some type of voucher plan as well. At least some of the kids would have a chance in that scenario.

    I’ll also go back to my idea of paying young women to defer having children until they are 21 and offering large cash bonuses for graduating high school. It would be cheaper for taxpayers, reduce the number of at risk students, and allow finite resources to be expended on a smaller population.

    1. Claus2

      “That’s sexism, as a male I want my check too. What about reparations… I graduated high school and didn’t have kids prior to 21 years old… I want my money too”. That’s what your plan would accomplish.

  2. Doug Ross

    From the article:

    “The Allendale school district, which has 1,200 students, receives more than $17,000 a year for each student in state, federal and local dollars – more than most districts receive. The district operates the only schools – public or private – in the county.”

    So give every kid a voucher for $15K and see what happens. Maybe nothing but likely something better for some of them than what they are getting now. The district can keep $2K as ransom money and distribute it across those who remain on the sinking ship.

    My question has always been “how much more money do you want to GUARANTEE noticeable improvement?” If we double the spending, will we see actual results or just some tiny incremental bumps in a couple PASS test scores?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “So give every kid a voucher for $15K and see what happens.”

      At this point, I must ask my usual question: Where would they spend it? And I’ll add, how would they get there? It continues to astound me that people think excellent private schools will spontaneously arise in these thinly populated, intensely poor places.

      And who in this situation is talking about more money? What I’m reading is that there is a crisis here with incompetent, self-interested leadership that must be shoved aside.

      The school board’s lawyer, trying to stop the takeover, is the only person I’ve seen talking about money — and it appears to me that he’s trying to deflect from the real problem…

      1. Doug Ross

        That’s your usual excuse against vouchers, Brad. You know what happens if you offer vouchers and nobody steps up to offer an alternative? Nothing different than what is happening now. There is ZERO risk. You more afraid that it might be successful because it might then expand to other districts.

        Your solution is the only one big that guarantees no change. It’s the same solution that has been tried for decades. You can’t fix the system. You can only fix individuals in this case.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          No, there’s not “ZERO risk.” You’re taking $15,000 per child out of the school system when they have nowhere to spend it.

          And the other things you say are completely backwards. “Your solution is the only one big that guarantees no change.” Say what? The public schools are the only ones I CAN change. We citizens can’t control any other factor but the public schools.

          No, thanks, I’ll pass on your magic beans, especially if I have to take 15 grand out of the schools for each one of them…

          1. Doug Ross

            No you’re not. You’re saying nobody will come to offer an alternative. If that happens, the kid and the money stay in the school. No loss.

          2. Doug Ross

            We citizens can’t change Allendale. Only Allendale can change Allendale. We’re not all connected you know… If we were, you’d head down there on weekends to do some volunteer tutoring.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Actually, acting through Molly Spearman, I’m sending them someone who knows a lot more about this than I do to take over. Way better than me going down and tutoring. Don’t know about you, but I’ve always been pretty sure that I lack the skills, and the saintliness, to be a K-12 teacher…

            2. Scout

              “We’re not all connected you know… If we were, you’d head down there on weekends to do some volunteer tutoring.”

              So the other day when I inadvertently made Bryan mad by saying that liberals looks at things from more perspectives – this is the sort of thing I was talking about.

              You clearly have a much narrower definition of what “we are all connected” means than I do. You are much quicker to draw single arbitrary conclusions and state them unequivocally as the only possible outcome. “If we were, you’d head down there on weekends to do some volunteer tutoring.” Really? That’s the only thing that would show that we are all connected? That’s a bit odd.

              We are all connected and that is manifest in myriad ways.

        2. Lynn Teague

          Privatizing schools is not an untried alternative, an experiment yet to be conducted. There is plenty of experience at this point, and that shows that there is a very real risk to privatizing education, even where public schools are troubled. In Michigan, where school choice has been practiced extensively due to the advocacy of DeVos and others, charter schools perform on the whole significantly worse than public schools, even the very challenged Detroit public schools (

          The children of Allendale deserve a chance at an education, and at this point there is considerable practical experience to show that is most likely to occur through state management of the public schools.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    I toured Allendale County more than a decade ago. Not a very extensive tour — I spent a day there.

    And wow — talk about a place that has next to nothing going for it.

    I was there because a Columbia attorney who is from there asked my then-publisher, Ann Caulkins, if we would come learn about the place. Ann and Nina Brook — who was my associate editor who wrote about education issues — and I went.

    The immediate reason we were invited was that Mark Sanford had called for closing the local USC affiliate there. Since we had been saying we had too many such campuses for years before he had thought of it, we were supportive. The local folks wanted to change our minds by showing us how badly such an institution was needed there. They didn’t change our minds, but we were sympathetic of their plight.

    A couple of images stick out in my mind:

    — The ghost motels. There’s a nice four-lane highway that runs through Allendale, and all along it there are these 1950s-style abandoned motels falling apart. Apparently, this highway was once a major thoroughfare for people driving through South Carolina, and the motels brought a lot of cash into the community. Then the Interstate came along (in this case, 95 I think) and all that economic activity just vanished. It had been generations since you could make a good living in the county through agriculture, and the tourism dollars had been a godsend. But that was gone, too.

    — The lawsuit “winner.” You’ve probably heard about how plaintiff’s attorneys like to have cases against deep-pockets defendants tried in poor, rural communities. That’s because winning a lawsuit is one of the few ways people in such communities can even imagine becoming financially well-off. Our hosts drove us past the home of someone who had won such a lawsuit, against a railroad or some other large business from beyond the county. The successful plaintiff had started an ambitious program of building a nice new house with nice outbuildings and other amenities (it was more than just a house, but I forget the particulars) — then ran out of money, so the project was unfinished. I THINK that’s the way it happened; it’s been a bunch of years. But what I came away with was the depressing idea that here was a place where people didn’t see many other hope for having a comfortable life.

    It was all pretty depressing…

  4. Claus2

    Put it this way, it can’t make it any worse. This in a district where sending your school equal free daycare until they’re old enough to drop out of school. I met a teacher who taught in the district maybe 10-12 years ago, she said the students are bad enough, it’s the parents that don’t care. The best thing she did during her short teaching career was to get the hell out of that district.

  5. Harry Harris

    I don’t know if this takeover will make “the” difference. The surrounding social, economic, and political environment are key factors needing change for a profound difference to occur. I am convinced that the takeover will make “a” difference. The interim superintendent, Walt Tobin, has personal leadership skills, experience, a focus on whatever he’s tasked to do, and runs a tight ship without apologies. During his tenure, he will work with the state department to start putting needed factors in place. Outside leadership will be a key component of rapidly ending some long-existing problems.
    More lasting and deeper improvement will need the community to begin to change and offer a visible future and desirable environment and structure for the students in, out, and beyond school. A good 500 plus jobs employer and accompanying high-quality training program would be the best cornerstone.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You’re right, especially here:

      “A good 500 plus jobs employer and accompanying high-quality training program would be the best cornerstone.”

      Although I’d rather see ten 50-plus employers, from a wide variety of industries — so that one closure doesn’t kill all the progress….

      1. Harry Harris

        Good point. An anchor industry does often spawn a number of feeders and increase employment in other businesses through the ripple effect of a large payroll circulating in a community. That one employer closing can have a similar negative effect as well. The closing of manufacturing plants in Marion county several years back had a terrible effect on the county and took a toll on the schools as well. The students began to lose sight of the future that had been there for decades before.
        Interesting, though, is little Greeleyville in a very poor. nearly jobless section of Williamsburg county. Because of the long, strong, steady leadership of Charles E Murray, the schools there produced successful citizens for decades – and the success continued for years after he retired. He emphasized citizenship, character, work habits, and school/community pride. The school’s graduates had to travel for work, but they got the jobs because employers around Charleston and other areas knew they were good workers with great manners and habits. His legacy is all over the state as educators, factory workers, trades workers, and more. Ask anyone from Greeleyville about Mr. Murray. His style was respect; his method was commitment to excellence, and some will tell you his word was law.

  6. Karen Pearson

    I can only hope that things will improve. That money can be better spent than it is now. Parents don’t care because they don’t believe anything will get better, and because they have no idea how to care. The kids are currently getting nothing. Industry is unlikely to move there because the population lacks even foundational skills (reading, writing, arithmetic), and have never been taught how to hold a job. It’s going to be a long, hard, haul. Ms. Spearman is going to be hard put to find the ground to build a foundation.

    1. Doug Ross

      It’s obvious the parents don’t care because they had kids they couldn’t care for in the first place. It’s legal child abuse.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        “It’s obvious the parents don’t care because they had kids they couldn’t care for in the first place.” That’s one of the most brutal things I’ve heard said about the poor in awhile.

        The problem, you’re saying, isn’t that the people running the schools are failing these kids. The problem is that these kids are alive in the first place, right?

        1. Doug Ross

          Would you suggest that someone living in poverty have even one child? Or how about five? You think that’s responsible parenting?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I wouldn’t suggest it. But once someone has a child, I have a deep-seated aversion to saying “This child should not be.” Perhaps it’s a Catholic thing. You know how we are…

      2. Scout

        Do you really think you are qualified to assess what another person feels? You know who is qualified to assess what any given person feels?

        That person.


        People are irrational beings. So your attempt to rationally explain why something is “obvious” about human behavior doesn’t necessarily follow.

        Besides that, there are about a bazillion variables and complexities that influence how a person feels, a great great great majority of which, you, as an observer, don’t have access to. Combine that with the fact that you, being from a completely different background, socioeconomic level, and culture essentially, have a completely different frame of reference to judge what anything they do might mean.

        For these same reasons, I also don’t know what they feel. I am not them.

        However, I think it’s far more plausible that:

        – Parents do care about their children
        – They think they can care for any children they have as well as they were cared for as children, which is likely the only frame of reference they have
        – Living in abject poverty, which is not fun, they take joy where they can find it, which probably includes making and enjoying the presence of children. It’s a very human thing to do.

        1. Bob Amundson

          I volunteer hundreds of hours per year reviewing foster care cases and trying to improve the child protection system in South Carolina, especially here in Richland County. I’m not bragging, I’m saying this only in the hopes that Doug will appreciate that I do “walk the walk.”

          Scout, your comments are correct. Doug, your comments come from a very biased point of view. Doug, I’d be glad to help you through the process of being appointed to a local foster care review board so that you can actually speak about child abuse from a place of knowledge. I will only respond to you, Doug, if you accept my offer. As Scout has noted in other threads, debating with you is a waste of time.

  7. bud

    The population of Allendale County has declined sharply since 1990 when 11,700 people lived there. There are only about 9000 people left. The place is dying. Just pay moving expenses for those who wish to live elsewhere. Then turn the non farm land into a giant park for recreational activities. The former residents of Allendale would have access to good jobs and schools. The rest of us could enjoy a world class recreational facility that could be paid for with user fees. There would be no need for schools.

  8. Karen Pearson

    Bud, how about turning unused areas into solar farms? I know that moving them won’t work in reality, but it’s reallly their best chance.

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