The educational journey of 1,057 students changed four years ago when the Charleston County School Board closed five schools.
School leaders promised them a better future, but it’s become increasingly difficult to argue that has happened. The school district has failed to evaluate that group of students this year, and officials say it’s not possible to determine how much money has been saved.
“I still think we made the right decision for efficiency,” said school board member Chris Fraser. “The jury is out on whether we made the right decision for educational purposes. You’d like to think so, but it’s hard to prove it.”
Faced with a projected $28 million shortfall, the school board agreed in 2009 to shutter five schools: Brentwood Middle School, Charlestowne Academy, Fraser Elementary, McClellanville Middle, and Schroder Middle. They picked the schools using factors such as enrollment, academic achievement and per-pupil costs.
Some downtown parents thought the decision was racially discriminatory and filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights. Charleston County school officials said it’s been more than a year since they’ve heard from investigators, but a recent inquiry showed the case remains under investigation.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the office doesn’t discuss details of its investigations, and some cases take longer than others to resolve.
“This case involves complex legal issues and is very fact-intensive,” he said.
That explanation didn’t sit well with some.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Wilmot Fraser, whose father was the namesake of Fraser Elementary. “To my mind, they have shelved this investigation.”
Students whose lives were affected by the closures still are being affected, and the closure of Fraser was a disservice to public education, he said.
Chris Collins and Chris Fraser are the only current school board members who voted on the closures. Collins said the district has lost its focus on those students and gotten busy with other issues.
“It should be something we’re paying attention to now,” he said. “We have short-changed the students in the past and not fulfilled our obligation to give them a high-quality education.”
Fraser said the board’s experience with these closures will come back up again this year as it looks at proposals to make schools more efficient. The board’s 2009 decision was driven largely by a poor economy, but it thought students would be better for it. That hasn’t necessarily happened, he said.
The district estimated in 2010 that the closed schools saved $2.3 million. It hasn’t calculated the savings since then, and it spends roughly $420,000 annually to maintain those mostly vacant spaces.
Mike Bobby, the district’s chief of finance, operations and human resources, said money was reinvested into schools to ensure children’s success, and it’s not possible to do an apples-to-apples comparison now because programs and positions have changed.
The district hasn’t looked at the academic achievement of that group of students since November 2011. At that time, test results were mixed, with English/language arts scores being worse than in 2009 and math scores improving.
Audrey Lane, the district’s deputy for human capital development, said the district has a new board with new priorities, and this issue hadn’t risen to the top. The district has a database of those students, and their achievement for 2011-12 and 2012-13 will be evaluated after test scores for this school year are available. Those students are monitored the same way other district students are, and they receive help if needed, she said. Jon Butzon, the former executive director of a local education advocacy group, said this situation is an example of the problem with accountability in South Carolina.
“Nobody is ever called to account,” he said. “No one has to stand up and answer.”