Black members walk out of Charleston school board meeting in protest amid claims of segregation

Charleston County School Board members (left to right) the Rev. Chris Collins, Michael Miller and the Rev. Eric Mack walked out of a meeting Monday night citing poor treatment of black students. They were joined in a press conference by leaders from the NAACP and the National Action Network.

All three black members of the Charleston County School Board walked out of a board meeting Monday saying that the school district was systematically segregating its schools and making decisions that hurt black students.

Michael Miller, the Rev. Eric Mack and the Rev. Chris Collins announced at the start of the session that they would not be participating in the nine-member board’s meeting, citing the recent decision to close rural Lincoln Middle-High School as the latest in a long history of problems. They left the room with a large contingent of Lincoln parents, alumni and community activists, including the NAACP and the National Action Network.

“At a certain point, silence is consent,” Miller said in a press conference on the front steps of the district office.

The three board members said they would present the rest of the board with a “wish list” of proposed changes, including reversing the decision to close Lincoln, electing a new board chair to replace Cindy Bohn Coats, hiring more black teachers and principals, and hiring a chief diversity officer.

Asked after the meeting whether they had seen the wish list, other board members said they had not seen the list and were not aware of what their fellow board members wanted.

Miller, Mack and Collins said the district has a history of neglecting and closing high-poverty, high-minority schools. In 2008, the district closed five schools, including Fraser Elementary downtown and Schroder Middle in Hollywood.

Parents and alumni from Lincoln said the district had failed to improve education and opportunities at the school for years, leading some parents to send their children elsewhere in the district.

Clarissa Brown, a McClellanville resident who had three children graduate from Lincoln, said school suffered a blow when Hurricane Hugo destroyed its vocational training building in 1989 and the district never rebuilt it.

Other parents complained that the district took until last year to install Wi-Fi Internet access at the school.

Charles Maker said Lincoln has faced the threat of closure since he graduated from there in 1984, adding that he had watched the school population dwindle as the district neglected the school.

“What is a failing school?” Maker said to the remaining six members of the board. “Why are only (schools with) predominately black students failing? Why has Lincoln been set up since 1954 to fail, and here we are in 2016 closing it?”

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said the decision to close Lincoln was about improving educational opportunities for the roughly 100 students at the school, which is unable to provide some specialized courses and programs due to the low population. The students will transition to St. James-Santee Elementary and Wando High in the fall.

During the meeting, Postlewait presented a list of “brutal facts” in her year-end presentation to the board. She said Charleston County schools were suspending a disproportionately high number of black students and that black students were falling behind their white peers in literacy and numeracy scores before they entered pre-kindergarten.

Postlewait also pointed to dramatic improvements in standardized test scores at Meeting Street Academy @Brentwood, a private-public partnership in North Charleston, and said the district would work to replicate the initial success there.

The remaining board members said after the meeting that they did not know their colleagues would be leaving. Tension on the board have at times run high, including last summer when board members continued to interview superintendent candidates as the city was in mourning shortly after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

Coats said she was not surprised that some board members were calling to replace her as its chair.

“That’s nothing new,” Coats said. “I think the real news story would be if Chris Collins was not calling for me to resign as chair.”

The board voted Monday to move Charleston Progressive Academy’s sixth-grade students to Simmons-Pinckney Middle starting in the fall. The district has also considered closing the middle school grades at Sanders-Clyde Elementary this fall and sending those students to Simmons-Pinckney, but after parents expressed outrage about a lack of communication on the issue last week Postlewait said she would recommend waiting until the fall of 2017 to make the change.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.