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Published on Thursday, July 13, 2017

Location of alternative school program in next school year still undetermined

The Marlboro County School Board did not make a decision about the future of the AMIKids Infinity program’s location during its regular monthly meeting Monday night.
This is the district’s alternative school program, which is for middle and high school students who are removed from the regular classroom because of behavioral issues. Referrals are most often made in lieu of expulsion. No more than 45 students are served at any given time, per the school district’s contract with AMIKids.
At one time, the program was housed in mobile units behind Bennettsville Middle (now Intermediate) School on Cheraw Street, but it has been in the otherwise vacant Bennettsville Elementary building at Country Club Drive and North Cook Street for several years.
When the superintendent of schools, Dr. Helena Tillar, made her initial recommendation for school reconfigurations in April, the plan included moving the Infinity program to the newer portion of the School of Discovery building in Clio. This would have been possible because the plan also involved moving the School of Discovery to Blenheim.
But the reconfiguration plan has changed several times since then. Most recently, the board on June 22 voted to leave the School of Discovery in its current location in the upcoming school year. That means the facility won’t be available for the Infinity program.
At that June 22 meeting, Tillar told the board that the State Department of Education has said students can no longer be housed at the Bennettsville Elementary building, and that the program cannot be housed at any other school which could potentially send students to the program (a middle or high school).
Reiterating that on Monday of this week, Tillar said it appears the only option is to place the Infinity program at Bennettsville Primary. Otherwise, she said the district would have to look into renting property for the program.
The board chair, Lucy Parsons, asked her to bring to the August board meeting options for the Infinity program moving forward. Tillar said she had already presented an option (the original reconfiguration plan) and the board had rejected it. “I’m not a magician,” she said. 
Parsons also said the board should discuss at its August meeting what to do with the Bennettsville Elementary building once the Infinity program is moved to another location. 
She said she believes there would be financial considerations, such as increased insurance premiums for a vacant building, and attempted to ask the district’s chief finance officer, Wes Park, a question about that when she was scolded by Tillar. 
The superintendent said she was “very offended” that Parsons would ask a question of one of her staff members, “when I’m sitting right here.”
Historically, board members, elected by the taxpayers, have been able to ask questions of district staff members at will. 
The urgent need to find another location for the Infinity program is the statement that the state department has told the district that it can no longer house the students at Bennettsville Elementary. 
However, Ryan Brown, chief communications officer with the S.C. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Governmental Affairs, told the Herald-Advocate this week that neither the Office of Student Intervention Services, which monitors alternative school programs, nor the Office of School Facilities, which approves school building plans, renovations, relocations, etc., has been in contact with the Marlboro County School District regarding this matter.
Brown also provided the statute governing the locations of alternative program sites. According to the law, these programs should be operated at sites separate from other schools. It does provide for certain exceptions and gives districts the option of applying for waivers.
The statute follows:
SECTION 59 63 1310. Alternative school programs; individual or cooperative programs;  funding;  sites.
School districts which choose to establish, maintain, and operate, either individually or as a cooperative agreement among districts, alternative school programs shall be eligible for funding provided by the General Assembly for this purpose. The program must be operated at a site separate from other schools unless operated at a time when those schools are not in session or in another building on campus which would provide complete separation from other students.  However, an existing alternative school program located in a defined area within a building which provides complete separation from other students and which otherwise meets the criteria established herein may continue at this site if the location is approved by the Department of Education.  Provided, that a school district or consortium may apply for a waiver to the site requirement for a new program if it demonstrates to the satisfaction of the State Department of Education that no separate site is available and the cost of temporary classroom space cannot be justified, then the alternative school program may be established in a defined area within a building which provides complete separation from other students if the location is approved by the Department of Education.  This waiver may be granted for a period of two years.  In order for the district or consortium to reapply for a waiver, they must outline efforts made to acquire a separate facility.
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