Charleston County legislators have announced they will be introducing legislation aimed at intercepting some of the sweeping changes approved by the Charleston County School District.
The legislation would require public approval for the closing or merging of “popular schools and magnet programs.” Two other bills would change the way the district’s school board is elected “to make them more responsive to local parents and local schools.”
If passed, the legislation could retroactively freeze some of the district’s controversial changes set to be implemented next school year, said Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.
“We’re not prepared to sit by and watch them force this down the throats of parents, schoolchildren, teachers this way,” Stavrinakis said.
Stavrinakis said the legislation will be drafted and ready to be filed on Jan. 14 when the S.C. Legislature reconvenes.
The decision to take formal action came after members of the delegation met with board members on Friday, just days before the board was scheduled to cast final votes.
The heated, two-hour meeting ended with a formal, unanimous plea from the delegation for the school board to delay its decisions.
Despite the request, the board pushed through.
The latest round of changes, including controversial proposals for Buist Academy for Advanced Studies, Memminger Elementary, Academic Magnet High School and partial magnet schools, was approved Monday night after seven hours of board meetings.
Many of the changes have been met with intense scrutiny or community pushback after they were initially presented in September. Since then, some of the changes have been modified several times, sparking confusion and frustration from some parents.
The changes also have sparked passionate support from other parents and community members who argued that the changes to Charleston County’s unequal schools are long overdue.
"(We) supported the district's bold actions last night to finally bring equity to Charleston County schools by ending decades of segregation," said the Rev. Nelson Rivers, vice president of religious affairs and external relations for the National Action Network. "(Stavrinakis) thinks the status quo is good enough... But privilege needs to be disrupted."
The National Action Network and the Charleston Branch NAACP announced their formal opposition to the legislative delegation's plans Tuesday, arguing that it would "undo years of work to finally bring equity to Charleston County schools."
The school board listened and heard the delegation’s input on Friday, said Vice Chairwoman Kate Darby.
“I think we will continue, as we move forward, to take that advice and that input into account and really engage parents,” Darby said. “Some of these changes are going to be really hard for people, and I’m sure the delegation members deal with that, too. Not everybody is going to be happy when we make some changes that, in the end, will benefit all children. But I think that was our moral imperative or our moral responsibility to do that.”
Board members sent a letter to the delegation Tuesday outlining plans to create a planning team that includes teachers and parents from every school impacted by major change through third-party partnerships, school mergers, or school reconfigurations.
The board has spent the majority of this year deliberating these important issues, said Chairman Eric Mack.
"In the final analysis, the supermajority of the Board simply voted to put into action the changes which we believe will make the greatest long-range difference for all the students that we serve. The decisions were not made for popularity or for retribution," Mack said in a statement.
The legislators’ concerns about the school board’s changes were broad and far-reaching.
Some criticized the board’s so-called lack of cohesive communication and involvement with parents and educators. Others thought the district was spending too much time focusing on altering high-performing schools while not focusing enough time on bolstering neighborhood schools.
“The public deserves to know that these processes have been followed, that they've been thought out, that there's research, data, something behind all of this,” Stavrinakis said.
Stavrinakis was skeptical that the plan to phase out kindergarten through second grade at Buist by 2023-24 and give priority entrance next year to students zoned for high-poverty schools would result in increased diversity.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, worried about the board’s solicitation for third-party partners to manage some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.
“We have to hit pause when the district freely admits that it is soliciting bids from outside parties to run our schools,” Kimpson said in a statement. “Based on the volume of calls I’ve received in opposition, I think the better course is to slow this train down to make sure that these policies are narrowly tailored to achieve the intended results and that the community is fully engaged, fully informed and has their voices heard.”
Few details about how the proposals will actually be implemented are available, but district staff has already started working on ironing out some of the specifics, Darby said.
“I want people to understand you know we hear their concerns,” Darby said. “We know if they have kids in one of these schools that we've made changes to, you know, they want to know what's happening right away."
District staff is already working with West Ashley middle school parents, Darby said, and right after the holidays, staff will engage parents at Buist, Memminger, and Academic Magnet.
The next board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 13.