By Rebecca Johnson
DILLON – The thrum of Interstate 95 stands in contrast to the quiet of downtown Dillon two miles off the highway. The line of convenience stores and fast food restaurants just off the exit leads into a town where empty storefronts stand like skeletons.
The seven-mile stretch through Dillon to Latta is dotted with abandoned businesses and houses on crumbling asphalt overgrown with weeds. Mobile homes are clumped in dusty commune. Deteriorating motor inns have been reclaimed by trees and defaced with graffiti and vandalism.
Most operating businesses are car garages, credit loan offices and dollar stores.
And according to Ray Rogers, superintendent of Dillon School District 4, while some new restaurants have opened, many businesses – and jobs – in Dillon have disappeared over the years.
“These people don’t have high-paying jobs, so the more taxes you put on them, the less they have to supply their family needs,” Rogers said. “It’s kind of like getting blood out of a turnip.”
“In other words, you’re getting something that’s not there.”
The U.S. Census Bureau in 2013 said 31,255 people live in Dillon County; about half are black and half are white, and a little over a quarter of them are under the age of 18. In a community where the median household income is less than $29,000 and industry is scattered, public education has become a burden and remained a challenge.
Industry property taxes partially fuel education funding, and Dillon is low on businesses that can help schools as much as they need it. The empty business facades echo the empty teacher positions at Dillon High School.
Rogers said there is no art teacher at Dillon High. Math and science teachers are the highest priority in a rural school like Dillon but the hardest to keep.
“Very seldom do you get one just coming because they want to teach high-poverty kids, and then sometimes they don’t have the experience,” he said.
Dillon County didn’t have issues filling teaching positions a decade ago when there was a surplus of teachers. But Rogers, a central figure in South Carolina’s two-decade long legal struggle to bring more equity to public education, knew that recruitment to his small town would eventually be a problem.
Teachers get experience in Dillon 4, where all students receive free lunches because well over 90 percent qualify for the aid. From there, Rogers said, teachers “can pretty much go anywhere, because they can handle a little bit of any and everything if they’re going to work with these challenged kids.”
According to Rogers, the $30,000 average teacher salary doesn’t compare to salaries in other districts. It’s a “challenge” to offer a position, where the same job 30 miles down the road will get you $5,000 to $10,000 more, Rogers said.
“Bringing in the brightest young minds is hard to do when you can’t even compete with the salaries other districts pay,” he said. The high school is losing three math teachers after this school year to other districts. But Rogers doesn’t blame any teachers who have moved or want to work in higher-paying areas.
When Dixiana Mills closed in 1995, many people lost their jobs, and Dillon public schools lost a huge supporter. Even with Perdue Farms on S.C. Highway 9 and Harbor Freight off I-95, Rogers said, “you can’t replace a Dixiana.”
There has been good news recently: Wyman-Gordon, a manufacturer to the aerospace industry, has promised to invest $15 million and bring 400 jobs to Dillon over the next five years.
Falling behind year by year
Education is funded by taxes on industry and infrastructure as well as revenue from the state sales tax.
Unlike the more urban and prosperous Upstate and Midlands, rural counties like Dillon are hamstrung because their modest tax base cannot generate enough funds to properly maintain schools. That has been the story in Dillon County for decades.
Before Dillon Middle School was built in 2012, the most recent new construction was the high school in the 1970s. The new building was constructed with funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The Dillon County School Facilities Corp. received a $4 million grant and a $35.8 million loan to be paid with a penny-a-dollar sales tax over 40 years.
More than 20 years ago, Rogers and other rural superintendents from 36 S.C. school districts filed suit against the state claiming the system of school funding – then based partly on homeowner property taxes – resulted in funding gaps and education inequities in small, rural districts.
Last November, after a convoluted journey through the state court system and multiple appeals from the state and the plaintiff districts, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the poor districts and ordered the state legislature to come up with a new funding mechanism that equalized funding across the state.
The high court ruled that that the state has not provided even a “minimally adequate education” to the poorest school districts.
Defined by the South Carolina Supreme Court, a “minimally adequate education” includes:
- providing students adequate and safe facilities in which they have the opportunity to acquire;
- the ability to read, write and speak the English language;
- and knowledge of mathematics and physical science;
- a fundamental knowledge of economic, social, and political systems;
- and a history of governmental processes;
- and academic and vocational skills.
The court ordered that legislators take another look at funding formulas to take care of old facilities and to bring in better teachers, possibly even consolidating smaller school districts.
Dillon County once had four separate small districts. Two of its four school districts, District 1 and 2, consolidated in 2011. Rogers became superintendent of the renamed District 4. The district has two high schools, grades 9-12 in Dillon, and grades 6-12 in Lake View. Dillon District 3 is in the community of Latta.
In a statement following the ruling, Gov. Nikki Haley said that she understood the challenges rural schools face, being the product of one herself, and that she remained committed to public education.
But in late December 2014, the governor and House and Senate leaders asked the high court to reconsider its decision. They claimed the court had overstepped its judiciary boundaries by ordering lawmakers to reassess education funding, and suggested the Supreme Court had overlooked recent educational initiatives.
In early January, Haley rolled out her education reform plan that would allocate an extra $97 million to the state’s poorest school districts, including $29.5 million for reading coaches in every public elementary school, and $29.3 million to strengthen the Internet bandwidth and wireless networks in public schools statewide.
The court denied the petition for rehearing in late January. The order was simply put by Chief Justice Jean Toal: “We are unable to discover that any material fact or principle of law has been either overlooked or disregarded, and hence, there is no basis for granting a rehearing.”
Legislators have now been mandated to reform the state’s public education system but are given very little insight into what to do, how to do so and where to begin.
“I wish that we had gotten something straight 22 years ago and we wouldn’t be in the position we are now.” He said they should receive funding when the fiscal year starts over in July.
Rogers doesn’t believe he will see a fix to the educational funding problem. “They’re going to haggle back and forth, and during all this negotiating what ends up happening is we lose time, and we lose kids that it means so much for.”
‘You don’t want to see them go without’
The administration at Dillon High School isn’t much concerned with the education funding battle going on in the legislature.
Principal Shawn Johnson has his own methods for success, which are seen in the attitudes of the administration and the teachers they welcome onboard.
“Honestly, I just say this is the best place to work,” Johnson said. He points to the school’s recent improvements on the yearly report card.
The Dillon High graduation rate was 80 percent last school year, comparable to the state’s overall rate, and substantially higher than the 57 percent in 2012 when Johnson first arrived.
Johnson also emphasizes the importance of literacy and reading skills. In 2012, fewer than 50 percent of ninth-graders were passing English 1 end-of-course tests; by 2014, it has risen to nearly 64 percent.
He said teachers must have faith, because when they don’t, students know.
“First of all, they’ve got to believe that all kids can learn to the highest level of their ability. So whatever their ability is, they have to believe they can push that child to the max,” Johnson said.
And many in the faculty give their time – and sometimes their money – to make sure the students succeed.
Korriell Whaley is a ninth-grade English teacher and the English department chair, head cheerleading coach (a year-round position) and senior trip adviser. She said it’s hard to watch students live through hardship, and she does whatever she feels must be done without question. Her job at Dillon was her first, and she has been there for 10 years.
“You don’t want to see the kids go without. I spend so much time with these kids, and I don’t have any of my own. It’s like they become mine,” Whaley said. “And some of them are such good kids, you don’t want to see them go without, see them have to struggle.”
Recently, a senior was behind on payments for his senior supplies and trip. Whaley rallied the entire school to help him out, “and then it just snowballed.” She ended up collecting enough money to pay for the student’s senior trip, supplies and prom.
Whaley has earned the nickname “Momma Whaley” from some of her students because “if there’s anything I can do, that’s what I’m here for.”
Assistant Principal Michael Rogers said the administration does whatever is necessary to take care of the students. Several times the faculty and teachers bought students clothes, school supplies, sporting equipment and even food.
“We don’t ask any questions,” he said.
The world beyond Dillon
At Dillon High before Johnson, “there was nothing down here but trouble,” said senior Raven Harrison. Students said school was fun before Johnson, but no one was learning.
Now, students said there are fewer fights and drug-related incidences, and more students showing self-respect by planning for their future.
“He expected more from us and he’s tougher on everyone” compared to previous principals, said senior Lynsey Branham. “We respect him more for that.”
As Michael Rogers said: “Kids know when you care. If they don’t think you care about them, you can’t do anything with them.”
The principals tell students to look for a future beyond their hometown and their home life, and they ask teachers to take students on field trips to expand their horizons. Even though it’s all that most of these kids have ever known, students know “Dillon isn’t the world,” as Michael Rogers said.
“There’s no opportunity to grow here,” said senior Taylor Cribbs, class valedictorian and National Merit Scholarship recipient. She is going on to the South Carolina Honors College in the fall.
But that’s not to say people from Dillon aren’t going anywhere.
Mayor Todd Davis says that people in Dillon don’t believe that the 2005 documentary film, “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools,” accurately portrays the life and resolve of the people of Dillon, referring to students who have returned with higher education degrees.
“If you want to learn and succeed, you should be able to do it in Dillon,” Davis said. “Your success is contingent upon yourself.”
The film documented inequities in a string of rural, impoverished and largely African-American counties along I-95. The film explores how inadequate state funding for education has affected generations of students.
The mayor references Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve and perhaps Dillon High School’s most famous graduate. Bernanke waited tables at South of the Border, a sprawling tourist stop, before going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Students said most of this year’s class is headed for the military because it’s a way out of Dillon, a viable option for graduating seniors who can’t afford to attend college.
“I don’t know enough, really, except it does hurt to be tagged as the ‘Corridor of Shame,’” Davis said, adding that it was hard to meet with industry leaders and address that issue every time.
Davis’ children attend private school. He said his children get more one-on-one time with their instructors because classes are smaller and allow for more personal instruction.
The administration at Dillon High School acknowledges problems of class size and retaining teachers. State figures show the student-teacher ratio at Dillon in 2014 was 28-to-1, compared to the state median of 26-to-1.
“We could do so much more with money,” said Michael Rogers, adding that more funding could help make classes smaller and teaching more direct to ensure “kids won’t fall through the cracks.”
Melanie Barton, executive director of the nonpartisan S.C. Education Oversight Committee, said the legislative panel charged with reviewing education funding will not be making any recommendations in the last eight weeks of the 2015 legislative session.
That panel, the South Carolina Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force, met in Dillon in late March and at Erskine College in Due West in Abbeville County on April 27, with another meeting planned in the Columbia area in May or June.
“I think there are a lot of legislators who think things have to change,” she said, but the education solutions include monetary and nonmonetary measures.
Barton said she thinks that there is a lot of local support for public schools in Dillon, based on the attendance at the meeting in March, but that finding solutions is the hardest part.
In rural areas with less industry and financial support, Barton said, the difficulty is attracting teaching professionals, encouraging strong leadership and creating opportunities for the students.
“There’s a lot of energy out there,” she said. “Channeling it into what will improve teaching and learning – that’s the hard part.”