COLUMBIA — Members of South Carolina's Legislative Black Caucus joined Monday with Denmark Technical College administrators to oppose an effort to turn the historically black college in one of the state's poorest areas into a trade school.
"This is not the time to close down Denmark Tech," said Rep. Joe Jefferson, D-Pineville, whose wife is a graduate.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, countered that the proposal she co-sponsored keeps the doors open by changing Denmark Tech's mission.
"This business about closing the school is just totally inaccurate. The school will cease to operate as part of the technical system, but the school will not close," she said. "I’m trying to avert what would be a total disaster if the school closed."
Denmark Tech could be the first school ever removed from the state technical college system.
No one disputes Denmark Tech is in deep trouble. Enrollment continues to drop to just 400 students two years after the state tried to boost interest by offering local high school graduates a free two-year degree or technical certificate. That's down from 2,300 students a decade ago.
The college, which primarily serves residents of rural Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties, will be operating in the red by this summer. Any shortfall would have to come from the 15 other technical colleges statewide, according to a January report by the state Technical College System, which recommends that Denmark Tech "no longer operate as a stand-alone college."
Cobb-Hunter said requiring other schools to chip in is both unfair to them and not a sustainable solution.
The plan calls for turning Denmark Tech into a regional career center for both high schoolers and adults seeking an industry certificate.
Many of the college's existing programs, such as welding and plumbing, would continue. Other programs in the works include brick masonry, carpentry, a flight school and demolition.
Some of the campus' decrepit buildings could be torn down by students as training for hazmat and demolition jobs, Cobb-Hunter said.
"I’m more concerned about keeping the educational opportunities this facility will offer available than I am about keeping somebody’s job as president or vice president and an HBCU designation," she said, referring to the acronym for historically black colleges and universities.
A 1947 state law created Denmark Tech as a trade school for black South Carolinians. It became part of the statewide technical college system in 1969.
For the plan's opponents, the college, which employs more than 70 people, is both a source of pride and an economic driver. They worry how the removal of college status would impact counties already in distress with high jobless rates and diminishing population.
"We deserve a fully funded technical college," said Rep. Jerry Govan, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and — like Cobb-Hunter — a Democrat from Orangeburg. Six other members of the caucus stood with him in opposing the plan.
Bamberg County Council Chairman Trent Kinard noted Masonite is closing its Denmark plant, eliminating 110 jobs. "We lost our grocery store. We're about to lose Goody's" clothing store. The struggling county can't take another hit, he said.
"This is the hub of the wheel in our area," said Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell. "We need your help. Help us with enrollment so we can survive."
Hosey, a former Denmark Tech board member, voted for the plan in a committee meeting because he thought "there was no other way for it to survive."
But he said seeing the commitment from the school's backers changed his mind. They need a chance to survive, he said.
Denmark Tech President Christopher Hall said the school's plans include "aggressive advertising" and recruiting statewide, as well as adding new programs like pre-pharmacy. He estimates needing more than $5 million from the Legislature to pay for the expansion plan.
But even some fighting to keep Denmark Tech in the tech system say that's the wrong approach.
Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat who represents Bamberg County, believes the school needs to refocus and offer fewer options, not more.
"It's better to be the best in a few things instead of mediocre at a lot," he said.