Plans for controversial school consolidations, changes to elite magnet school admissions and an overhaul of partial magnet schools across Charleston County will be brought before the Charleston County School Board on Monday.
The board is expected to vote on the sweeping changes, despite intense scrutiny from concerned parents, pushback from community leaders and outside pressure from a group of South Carolina lawmakers.
Over the past two months, community members have seen three sets of recommendations from school district officials designed to overhaul education across the country, promote diversity and provide equitable opportunities for all students.
Some ideas have been modified, discarded or changed entirely as the district hosted various community listening sessions to get input on the possible changes.
For many, a lack of concrete details or supporting data behind some of the proposals has led to frustration and confusion.
“I've heard three official presentations, and all three have been different. So they've changed that much. Our board is confused, and that’s why parents are confused, too,” said Sarah Johnson, the District 2 Constituent Board chair.
“But the most frustrating part for everyone involved, I think, has been the vague language, the lack of communication, the lack of any meaningful meetings in our district,” she added.
Despite pleas from community members and legislators to delay any big decisions, board members feel pressure to act.
“These are time-sensitive," school board Chairman Eric Mack said. "In order for us to enact these things come August 2020, these decisions have to be made early on.”
Board member Todd Garrett shared Mack’s desire to make changes, adding that he felt like the process has “taken forever” since it kicked off in June when community members presented ideas for mission-critical actions for the district to consider.
“We have an obligation to improve outcomes for kids and to fix situations that are currently limiting access to some of our best programs for kids. I feel like we've got a moral obligation to act,” Garret said. “It matters to kids if they lose two years. It matters to kids if they lose a year.”
On Thursday, the district released a list of 20 or so changes that the board will consider and vote on at its Committee of the Whole meeting Monday. (See sidebar)
The proposals include everything from revamping the district’s gifted and talented screening process to creating multiple new early childhood education centers.
Some of the more controversial proposals involve changes to partial magnet schools, the closure of Minnie Hughes Elementary on Yonges Island and the restructuring of Buist Academy for Advanced Studies and Memminger Elementary.
“It’s shocking to me that they can come up with something that affects this many people behind closed doors without the opportunity for others to speak their minds,” said Michael Mansson, who has two students at Mount Pleasant Academy.
Mansson attended a District 2 Constituent Board meeting Wednesday night, where a district official repeatedly assured parents that Sullivan's Island Elementary School's partial magnet status would not be removed at Monday’s meeting.
But according to the formal list recommendations released a day later, the district is recommending the partial magnet status be eliminated at Sullivan’s Island Elementary by 2021.
“The extreme lack of adequate communication and transparency from the district further erodes the trust that residents have,” Mansson said.
Board member Kevin Hollinshead said he shares many of the same concerns that parents have brought to him.
“They’re just haphazardly making changes without vetting it with the community. It just seems like they’re in a shotgun rush,” Hollinshead said, adding that the timeline has led parents and community members to reach out to local lawmakers.
Earlier this week, all but one of the Charleston County legislative delegation’s 22 members signed a letter asking Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and Mack to postpone any official action on magnet schools until lawmakers meet with the board and have had an opportunity to discuss the possible changes with parents and taxpayers.
Asked about Monday's planned vote, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said he hopes the board will reconsider.
“My strong hope is that the board will realize we’re respectful and very serious about this," he said, "and the level of public outpouring of concern has only intensified since we sent that letter.”
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, helped spearhead the delegation's letter to the district.
"I think that they would be better served taking the opportunity to discuss their plans with the delegation prior to voting on these matters," Kimpson said, "but that's totally a decision they will have to make."
Garrett said the timeline “shouldn’t be a surprise.”
“We’ve been saying since June that October, and now November, that we’re voting on it,” he added.
Other board members, including Vice Chairwoman Kate Darby, said although the first round of specific district recommendations came in September, “work has been going on for years.”
“I think people have lots of opportunities to share their opinions, and they've done a great job in doing that, but I think these are, for the most part, really positive changes,” Darby said.
The board will vote on the proposed changes individually on Monday. The meeting agenda can be accessed online.
If passed, the recommendations then would likely move forward to the regularly scheduled school board meeting on Nov. 18, when they would come up for a second vote. Some board members have discussed moving the next meeting to Nov. 25, three days before Thanksgiving.
Monday’s meeting starts at 12:25 p.m. in the school board room at 75 Calhoun St. The agenda includes 60 minutes for public comments at the meeting's start.