October 25, 2014

Education board decides against state takeover of seven schools

Seven persistently-failing South Carolina schools will be allowed to remain under local control after the state Board of Education unanimously decided against taking them over Wednesday.

Allendale County Schools Superintendent Harold McClain presents his district’s plan to the state Board of Education Wednesday (Courtesy: SC Dept. of Education)

All seven schools were before the board because they were graded to be “at-risk” for at least eight years. The Board of Education has the power to declare a “state of emergency” and either remove the school’s principal or have the South Carolina Department of Education take control of the school as a last resort.

Instead, the board voted to accept each presiding school district’s plan to get the schools on track (on certain conditions). Any future state assistance will hinge on those schools implementing their plans in the coming days.

The affected schools are W. A. Perry Middle School and Gibbes Middle School in Columbia, Allendale-Fairfax Middle School in Fairfax, Burke High School in Charleston, North Charleston High School, Lee Central Middle School in Bishopville, and Ridgeland Middle School in Jasper County.

South Carolina Education Superintendent Mick Zais recommended against a state takeover, saying it would be ineffective. “This has been tried and proven to be unsuccessful… the Department of Education is not empowered to make sufficient changes in a school to turn it around,” Zais said shortly before the vote, “The local community has, in the past and likely in the future, resisted any initiatives or directives coming out of Columbia.”

However, Zais also failed to offer ringing endorsement for any of the schools’ plans, saying that he was simply limited by existing state law to try a realistic alternative. He said he would work with lawmakers to create a special statewide school district for failing schools, similar to programs in Louisiana and Tennessee.

The most controversial plan was likely in Jasper County, where school officials want to combine the middle and high schools in the towns of Ridgeland and Hardeeville. Instead, students in both towns would attend Hardeeville Middle School or Ridgeland High School in the fall. The schools were split five years ago.

Jasper County Schools Superintendent Vashti Washington said a big problem is turnover in the district both among teachers and administrators. Washington herself was the fifth superintendent in five years at the district. “I realized that this was a massive task before me,” she told the board Wednesday.

Jasper School Board member Barbara Clark said she doubted her district’s plan would do little to improve student performance, “Yes, we’re making some gains (in our school report card),” she said during the public comment period, “But we’re not making all that much gain for the monies that’s being poured into Jasper County.”

The merger between the two schools is a touchy issue in the area. The school board itself approved the consolidation by a contentious 5-3-1 vote, capped off by one trustee being ruled out of order and kicked out of a meeting.

But Jasper County is hardly alone. “We’re willing to make a deal with the devil if we have to,” said Lee County School District Superintendent Cleo Richardson, whose own district combined a failing middle school with another recently. The consolidated Lee Central Middle School has struggled to reach federal standards ever since.

Some board members said any improvements for many South Carolina schools will require moving away from the traditional line of thought, “We’ve got to look at some radical changes if we’re going to make a difference,” said Thomas Shortt, who represents the Georgetown area on the board, “I’m hearing the same thing right now I heard 20 years ago.”