Florence Mayor, school board chair at odds over bond referendum for new schools

FLORENCE, SC (WBTW) – Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela does not think a proposed $266 million bond referendum to build and renovate schools in Florence District One is fair for all students in the district. Wukela believes West Florence gets more money than other parts of the city and said that goes against the city’s attempts to redevelop all parts of Florence.

The full interview with Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela:

“My concerns focus primarliy on fairness and equlty. I believe firmly in public education. I believe firmly in the need for new facilities throughout the school district.

I understand and accept the fact that those facilities cost money and we have to raise revenue to accomplish that. The problem I have is over the last 25 years the school district has built Carver, Sneed, Lucy T Davis, a new Royal, a new Delmae and a new more Moore. About $120 million worth of construction all on schools that are in West Florence.

North Vista on the Northside was constructed as well so that is one school serving the Northside at $20 million and zero on the South or East side. As we speak here today the school district has spent $120 million on the Westside and $20 million on the Northside and zero dollars anywhere else.

Now the proposed referendum that more than doubles the taxes for everyone in the district. And they do that to propose the construction of a new West Florence at the cost of $88 million which will result in every school on the west side of town being brand new and then renovations to Wilson in South Florence at the cost of approximately $15 and $17 million dollars.

It’s quite simply not equitable. What they would argue is schools in every part of the district now I will get something. But the hard fact is that the schools on the Westside will get everything. I’ve been working in the cities been working for a decade now trying to undo in equity in the community and move this community together as a whole. Fortunately, this proposal runs contrary to all of those efforts.

I’m against it as it is currently proposed.”

The Florence District One School board chair disagrees. Thursday afternoon, Board Chair Barry Townsend responded to the Mayor’s opinion. He spoke before the board meeting.

He admits West Florence has received new schools in the past but there’s strong growth there and the students need a new school.

The full statement from Florence 1 Chair Barry Townsend:

“My name is Barry Townsend, and I’m the chairman of the Florence School District One Board of Trustees. However, this statement is mine alone and is not being made in my role as the spokesperson for the board.

Rather than focusing on the input from our community to improve our proposed Facilities Update Plan, I find myself fielding requests that I respond to statements made in the media, and off the record, by local leaders. The mayor in particular seems to be more concerned with debating the past than addressing our current student’s needs. But this isn’t a political campaign and the school board isn’t his opponent, nor should he be ours.

The fact is that we have facilities and technology needs throughout the district. That is not up for debate. But the mayor would rather stall progress for all our students arguing over which school is in worse shape, when all of our schools will benefit from this plan now, not 20 years from now.

He has decided to single out one school in particular: West Florence High School. I was told yesterday that, based on early enrollment numbers, we may have an additional 100 students in West Florence this year, which would put the school 400 students over capacity. The mayor states that the west has received preferential treatment in the past, and perhaps it has, but in retaliation he proposes that we ignore the dangerous situation at WF and do the same thing that he accuses past school boards of doing, bypassing schools in need and giving preferential treatment to others.

But the students in our schools played no part in the choices – good or bad – made in the past, and continuing to pit the north, south, east and west against one another for political purposes only widens the divide in Florence.

If the mayor – whom I sought out and met with twice – or any other local leader wants to have a serious discussion about meeting all our student’s needs today, I am now and have always been willing. However, I refuse to continue to be baited into the same type of argument that caused these disparities to begin with and allow myself to be distracted from what I was elected to do: fight for what’s best for every student, in every school. In every community as chairman of the Board of all of Florence School District One.

Until the Mayor realizes he is the Mayor of all of Florence, not just two blocks in downtown Florence, I fear his sniping from afar will only reinforce the divisions that have separated our city for too long. Or even worse, serve as a unilateral veto to a plan that benefits all of our students, schools and communities. Our children deserve better than to inherit our problems.

Fortunately, when this question is finally put to a vote, every citizen’s vote will be equal to his or mine, and the fates of our students and the schools they attend will be in your hands.

Until then, I’m going to do my best to keep the board focused on what you elected us to do, ensuring all of our students get the education they deserve, in schools with technology that prepares them for the demands of the 21st century, no matter where they live or attend school in FSD1. Thank you.”

Thursday night, three community members told the board they want new schools but do not agree with the proposed bond.

“If the referendum calls to spend $88 million on a new school in West Florence, what are the other two high schools supposed to get?” asks Jim Moore, a South Florence parent.

Moore said he was surprised the board agenda included the first reading of the bond referendum since the board held the public forum just two days ago.

“I don’t know if they have had time to compile all of the comments that were made because the crowd was very sizable. Given that, how can they truly have the first reading on the referendum?” questions Moore.

Townsend admits the agenda was confusing but the board did not vote on adding the bond to the October ballot. He said the agenda was written following the freedom of information guidelines.

Each board member talked about the forum and suggests having work sessions to consider public input.

Board member Porter Stewart explained the only growth in the Pee Dee is in West Florence and the proposed referendum reflects that. Stewart also recommends revisiting the referendum plan to include community concerns.

Superintendent Dr. Randy Bridges praised the board for learning from past experiences but wants them to ask themselves, “Are we making the best decisions for our students?”

School leaders say the presentation from Tuesday’s forum will be online Friday morning. The board decided to have another meeting next Wednesday to consider the community’s concerns.