They say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But elected officials making decisions about public money and public education shouldn’t opt to stay on the same course without at least considering dramatic changes in circumstances.
So while doing so unfortunately would stir feelings of betrayal in parts of the community, the Charleston County School Board, with four new members, would do well to address the elephant in the room: the Rivers campus.
When the board decided in 2007 that two schools — the new Charleston Charter School for Math and Science and a new High Tech High — should eventually share the Rivers building, High Tech High, now know as Lowcountry Tech, was just a notion. CCSMS was a gamble. Either, or both, could fail. Either, or both, could succeed. The arrangement was reasonable. The programs might even be symbiotic.
Since then, CCSMS has graduated its first class of students, all of whom were offered acceptance to college. The student population, which some feared would not be racially diverse, is about half black and half white. This year, 220 more students applied for admission than CCSMS could accommodate.
Providing more building space for CCSMS, with Lowcountry Tech also housed there, would require another $7 million, which the district doesn’t have. The current renovation project, which is nearly finished, has already cost $25 million.
Meanwhile, the Charleston County School District is only now ready for a January opening of Lowcountry Tech at Rivers.
The program would provide courses in career and technology during part of the school day for students from Burke, West Ashley and North Charleston high schools. It is a worthy concept for students who will graduate and look for jobs in a technologically sophisticated world. The district has done the right thing to push forward with the concept, albeit slowly.
But the role of the school board is to see that all students get the best possible education. That means students in traditional schools, magnet schools and charter schools. It might mean combining schools that have dwindling enrollment. It might mean building new schools in burgeoning areas. And in the case of Rivers, it might — might — call for relocating a school. Or not.
The Rev. Joseph Darby Jr. has argued compellingly for the district to continue with its plan to open Lowcountry Tech at Rivers in January. The district promised that to the community and owes it to them to make it work successfully, he says.
And if it weren’t for CCSMS’ extraordinary success and the district’s limited resources, Rev. Darby’s argument would be a clincher.
But the district is committing $230,000 for Lowcountry Tech to be specifically at Rivers. Charter school advocates note that enrollment at Burke is shrinking, and a large part of that fine, modern campus is empty. Board members should take the heat that will surely result and examine what school program should be where. And at what cost.
CCSMS supporters urge locating Tech at Burke. Tech advocates suggest moving CCSMS there.
Each of the recently elected school board members pledged to be fiscally judicious and to stay focused on improving public education in Charleston County. They embraced the idea of charter schools, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. And they talked about what they can do for failing schools like Burke and North Charleston. The Rivers campus dilemma touches on all those issues.
Ultimately, the answer could be a shared campus, as originally agreed.
But circumstances have changed since that proposal was approved, and the prospect of spending another $7 million to make it work smoothly should be enough reason for the new school board to review that plan.