Lowcountry Tech is less than two months away from opening in the renovated former Rivers Middle School building, but the Charleston County School Board spent nearly two hours Wednesday discussing the new program’s history, components and whether that should happen.
Lack of public notice
Charleston County school officials let the public know about Wednesday afternoon’s school board workshop, but they failed to tell the public about a board tour of the former Rivers Middle School earlier in the day.The district invited school board members to see the downtown campus and learn more about the Lowcountry Tech program, and six members — or a quorum of the nine-member board — showed up, as did some community members.Board members and district staff referenced the tour later in the day when discussing use of the campus.Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said the morning tour was illegal because the public hadn’t been notified; the public should have been made aware of that gathering.John Emerson, the school district’s attorney, has been out of the office at a trial this week and wasn’t aware of the board tour. He said the district didn’t intend to gather a quorum of the board, and it was unexpected that six of the nine members showed up.“That was not the plan,” he said.Bender said that didn’t matter, and the Freedom of Information Act says that a chance meeting or social event can’t be used to circumvent the law.“That should’ve been public,” Bender said.Diette Courrégé Casey
The school board didn’t take any action that would change its 2007 decision for the new Lowcountry Tech program to share space with the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science in the downtown building, and it doesn’t appear that a majority of the board would support changing that.
Still, at least two board members, Todd Garrett and Elizabeth Moffly, said publicly they favor moving the Lowcountry Tech program to the Burke High School campus.
Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said she expects the school district to continue moving forward with its plans to start Lowcountry Tech on the Rivers campus in January.
“The only way that plan can be stopped is by board action,” she said.
Charter school supporters have been encouraging the board in recent weeks to move the program to the Burke campus, which has space to accommodate it.
Doing that would give the charter school the entire Rivers campus, and its middle school students no longer would be in mobile units. Those students are slated to be in mobile units even after the renovated Rivers building opens.
“We’re grateful the current school board is looking at all of the options,” said Susan Murrell, chairwoman of the charter school’s board.
“That’s a service to the entire community. We would like to have our children out of mobiles, but we will have a great school wherever our children are housed.”
Those behind the new Lowcountry Tech program, such as the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Charleston NAACP, are fiercely opposed to changing its location, and they have been encouraging the board to keep its promise to the community on putting the program at Rivers.
“I don’t even think they should be having this discussion,” said Beverly Gadson-Birch, vice chairwoman of the education committee for the Ministerial Alliance, after the board’s workshop. “This should’ve been a done deal.”
The issue is loaded with racial tension. Most of Lowcountry Tech’s supporters are black community members, and their fear has been that the charter school is averse to diversity.
Charter school leaders have said they are committed to diversity; the school’s enrollment is 50 percent black.
At least a couple dozen Lowcountry Tech backers showed up to Monday’s school board meeting, and a handful addressed the board. Charter school and Lowcountry Tech advocates attended Wednesday’s workshop.
Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operating officer, gave board and community members a tour of the Rivers building Wednesday morning.
The Lowcounty Tech labs were specifically designed for its programs, such as green STEM technology and information technology.
Lewis said it would cost between $2 million and $4 million to convert those into traditional classrooms, and it would cost even more to upgrade the Burke High campus to house the program. The board does not have money set aside for that kind of construction work, he said.
Although the charter school would like the labs to be converted into classrooms, Murrell, chairwoman of the school’s board, said later the school would accept the entire facility as is.
One of the most heated exchanges of the day was between county board members Craig Ascue and Moffly.
Ascue said he’s concerned about the divide between the charter school and Lowcountry Tech, and he wants the two programs to work alongside each other and embrace diversity.
He said he doesn’t want to repeat mistakes from the past.
“My parents lived in a segregated society,” Ascue said. “I’m not raising my kids in a segregated society.”
“This is not about segregation,” Moffly shot back.
“That is the feeling I’m getting, and I don’t like it,” Ascue said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.