School board votes to approve the Promise

WINNSBORO – The Fairfield County Board of Trustees voted 6-0 Tuesday night to approve a detailed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), pledging the district’s participation and $75,000 in taxpayer money to launch the program in Fairfield County.

Trustee Paula Hartman abstained.

Fairfield County Council has budgeted, but not yet awarded, an additional $75,000 for the Promise initiative. Council members discussed the Promise Program in executive session at its July 8 meeting.

If approved by the County, school district and Midlands Technical College, qualifying Fairfield County students could attend MTC-Winnsboro at no cost. The county has yet to weigh in on whether the program would fund tuition only, or also include books and supplies.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Hartman quizzed district officials about the MOU the district signed Tuesday night, which differs greatly from a document signed at a July 8 ceremony between the county, school district and Midlands Tech.

“This particular document that’s in front of us, is that what was signed on [July] 8th?” Hartman asked.

“No ma’am, it is not,” said Board Chairman William Frick. “There was some conversation about what the final agreement would be between the three parties. Since it [the signing] had been scheduled, we chose to go forward [with the shorter MOU]. It was very specifically a non-binding agreement, so essentially that was a ceremonial event that said ‘we intend to do this thing.’ This is the actual document that says ‘we are going to do this thing.’”

Council has not signed the detailed document passed by the Trustees Tuesday night.

Hartman isn’t the only person raising concerns about the Promise Program.

County Councilman Jimmy Ray Douglas has been vocal about his belief that the Winnsboro campus can’t fill classes.

Councilman Douglas Pauley thinks the details of the program are still too vague.

Pauley said any money, if approved, should be dispersed in installments based on conditions instead of by lump sum. The final contract should also clearly state academic, administrative and financial details, he said.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Dr. J.R. Green said approving the Promise Program is a no brainer.

“To suggest Fairfield County should not engage in this kind of innovative thinking is a bit perplexing,” Green said.

The detailed MOU passed by the school board requires applicants to have a 2.0 grade point average, which they must maintain at MTC to continue receiving aid.

Students can receive aid for up to nine semesters and can wait 12 months before enrolling, according to the document.

Kershaw County’s Promise Program, which also serves students in Sumter, Lee and Clarendon counties, restricts aid to six consecutive semesters. Students must also enroll in the summer or fall immediately after high school, the Kershaw Promise website states.

Kershaw only offers tuition aid, not books, supplies, lab fees and other costs.

Fairfield school district is proposing offering aid not only for tuition, but for books and supplies “pending availability of funds.” Greenwood covers tuition and fees.

Greenwood County offers two-year and four-year aid to students attending Piedmont Technical College or Lander University, respectively, according to the Greenwood Promise website.

There are no GPA requirements for high school seniors, though students in two-year programs must maintain a 2.0 and students in four-year programs must maintain a 2.5. They must also take at least 12 credit hours a semester and 24 hours a year, the website states.

Research into the public benefits of Promise Programs is mixed.

In April, NPR affiliate Michigan Radio published a report saying the Kalamazoo Promise Program, previously cited by Dr. Green as the gold standard of Promise Programs, has faced challenges.

Less than half of the initial students receiving aid have successfully earned a college degree. Only 15 percent of those receiving degrees are of African-American or Latino descent, the report states.

“It simply hasn’t changed the socio-economic numbers in our community,” Michael Rice, superintendent of the Kalamazoo school system, told the NPR affiliate.

A 2018 study by The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on educational equality, states that Promise Programs are often underfunded.

The report, though, states eligibility requirements tend to impair the effectiveness of Promise Programs.

“Free college programs that require students to maintain more than half-time enrollment or a GPA higher than 2.0 may shut out the students who stand to benefit the most, including adult students and students who are working while in school,” the report said.