School board moves toward private takeover at Burns Elementary

Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood Principal Sarah Campbell leads kindergartners in a class cheer. The Charleston County School District is considering handing over control of another North Charleston elementary school, Burns Elementary, to Campbell’s employer, Meeting Street Schools.

The Charleston County School Board took a step Monday toward handing over management of Burns Elementary School to a private organization.

“We’ve been doing Burns wrong for so long that we can’t wait another second to get it right,” said board member Michael Miller, who voted to recommend the change with a few reservations. “In one case, I am happy that we’re moving forward to do something different. But it saddens me that ... with all the minds and degrees and experience of this district, that we have to rely on them to do our job. That is sad.”

The board’s Strategic Education Committee voted unanimously to recommend a private-public partnership at Burns with Charleston-based Meeting Street Schools, which currently operates two private schools as well as the public Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood, a neighborhood school in the district.

Like all committee decisions Monday, the vote did not create an official policy change. The board will vote on whether to adopt the policy at its Feb. 22 meeting.

The district already allows Meeting Street Schools to spend public money and make hiring and firing decisions independently at Brentwood, a school that serves a similar high-poverty student population in North Charleston. In approving the proposal at Burns, the district would seek to replicate some early success in improving test scores at Brentwood.

Under the proposal, kindergartners from Burns would begin attending classes taught by Meeting Street Schools employees at the Brentwood campus in the fall of 2016. As the district builds a new Burns campus and adds one grade per year to the Meeting Street Schools rolls, the remaining Burns students would attend classes at the McNair campus on Spruill Avenue, where they would be taught by district employees.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend the plan and will vote on the issue at its next full-board meeting Feb. 22. Funding and staffing plans for the temporary Burns campus at McNair have not yet been written.

The district is also considering a plan to increase diversity at Academic Magnet High School by offering enrollment to the top two students graduating from each middle school. To be admitted, the students would still have to score a 13 or higher on the school’s 15-point rubric.

The Strategic Education Committee recommended the policy unanimously, but board member Chris Staubes said he worried the district was “treating the symptom and not the problem.”

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait asked the board to discontinue a $23 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which has been used in a pilot program to recruit, retain and reward teachers and administrators in 13 hard-to-staff schools.

Postlewait said there was “no evidence at all” that the grant money was attracting top teachers to the pilot schools. And while the grant was meant to help retain teachers, all but three of the pilot schools have actually seen teacher turnover rates increase during the years of the grant.

The district currently uses about $2 million per year from the 2012 grant to fund the salaries of 24 full-time employees, most working to evaluate teachers under the standards of the TIF grant. In the last two school years, it spent $662,900 from the grant to fund performance-based bonuses for 439 teachers and 30 administrators.

The district initially agreed to expand the program into all schools starting in the 2016-2017 school year. Postlewait said that in order to keep that promise, the district would be forced to spend at least $5 million per year of its own funds, with much of that money going to teacher bonuses.

Board member Todd Garrett agreed the TIF grant had been ineffective so far.

“It was a waste of time money and energy, and it has not produced quality,” Garrett said.

In other news, the board gave initial approval to a policy that would allow any high school senior with an average of 93 or higher in a full-credit course to exempt the final exam. All underclassmen would have to take their exams.

Board members also recommended naming the next Mount Pleasant high school in honor of longtime Wando High principal Lucy Beckham, who passed away unexpectedly in 2015.

Midway through a long afternoon of committee meetings, board member the Rev. Chris Collins walked into the room and almost immediately took issue with the board’s two-minute discussion limit on agenda items.

“I’m not on a two-minute clock, I’m sorry,” Collins said.

“You showed up two hours late, and you’ve already spent about 10 times as much time as I have,” Garrett replied.

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