Tensions between concerned parents and the Charleston County School Board came to a head Monday, after months of pushback on proposed changes to public schools, including school consolidations, elite magnet school admissions and an overhaul of partial magnet schools across the district.
More than 75 parents, teachers and community leaders, many holding signs, gathered on the sidewalk outside the Charleston County School District’s main office at 75 Calhoun St. to show their displeasure and concern over the proposed changes.
The protesters, many donned in red, carried signs as they chanted “Do your homework” and “Delay the vote” outside the building before the board meeting started.
When the School Board met, however, only a few votes were delayed. It agreed to end talk of removing Sullivan Island Elementary's partial magnet status, and it pushed off a vote on proposed changes to partial magnet schools, Buist Academy for Advanced Studies, Memminger Elementary and Academic Magnet High School until next month.
But it pushed ahead with other changes, such as closing Minnie Hughes Elementary, that could lead to more protests down the road.
Many who showed up Monday said they were frustrated with what they felt was the school district’s lack of transparency and adequate communication over the past two months.
“(The board) has held a number of meetings and sessions at which people have said, ‘Slow down; do your homework; do your research; delay these issues; this doesn’t have to be voted on now,’” said Nina Fields Britt, who helped organize the protest. “And the district is going to plow through, apparently, with some of these decisions.”
Like Fields Britt, many of the demonstrators also had students at Buist Academy, the popular countywide magnet school just down Calhoun Street from the district's main office. Other demonstrators represented schools including Minnie Hughes Elementary, Memminger Elementary and Sullivan’s Island Elementary, among others.
“Let me be clear. This is not, for me, just about Buist at this point,” Fields Britt said. “It is about nobody listening to us. And it is really frustrating.”
Liz Firestone, who has two students at Sullivan’s Island Elementary, shared concerns that the district was rushing to changes.
“There are district-wide concerns about the transparency that CCSD has shown through this process and we’re here to show that we’re not happy about it,” she said.
Monday's meeting is the culmination of years of community meetings, consultant reports and other efforts to devise "mission critical" changes to address the district's lowest performing schools and promote equity across the district.
“Some of these things are 50 years overdue,” said School Board member Priscilla Jeffery. “We've inherited a system that hasn't worked right for a lot of our kids for a very long time."
Other board members, including Todd Garrett and Vice Chair Kate Darby, agreed. Garrett has said, "I feel like we've got a moral obligation to act."
While the discussion has been going on for years, formal, specific plans had not been set until last week. During the past two months, the district has presented 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 of the controversial changes have been met with desperate pleas from community members who want more time and more details on plans before any decisions. Some parents have even started referring to the proposed “mission critical” changes as a “mission disaster.”
“To be sure, there are issues to be addressed. But the district has created a false sense of urgency with respect to some of these proposals, suggesting that they must take place next year,” Fields Britt said.
But not everyone who spoke at Monday's meeting was critical of the district's plans.
Elvin Speights, a North Charleston parent and community advocate, noted magnet and charter schools often draw students away from neighborhood schools, weakening them. He argued that the students that remain are those whose parents can't afford transportation to outside schools.
"We want our kids to have a good education, too. We want our kids to have good schools, too,” he said.
The board did attempt to appease some parents by deciding to delay final decisions on controversial proposals to partial magnet schools, Buist Academy for Advanced Studies, Memminger Elementary and Academic Magnet High School until Dec. 16.
But during public comments, Fields Britt said moving a vote to December is "not enough time to meaningfully engage parents and constituents, given how significant the changes are."
Ashley Wright, a Buist parent, agreed.
“The idea that we can give you meaningful feedback on a proposal that is going to be rolled out today for a vote, even in December, is frankly laughable,” Wright said.
The board also conceded to parents who voiced concern over changes to Sullivan’s Island Elementary and passed a motion to leave the elementary school as is and remove it from a list of schools that might lose their partial magnet status.
Other schools weren't as lucky. Despite a wave of pushback from advocates for Minnie Hughes Elementary two weeks ago, the board voted to approve a plan that would close the school and move its students to E.B. Ellington Elementary.
Most of the wide-ranging proposals got initial approval from the board on Monday, including a plan to transition Mary Ford Elementary into an early childhood education center and create an advanced academic program at West Ashley High School.
While most agenda items passed, few decisions were unanimous.
“We always need action, but the right kind. Not this kind,” said Board Member Chris Collins, who frequently voted against some of the district’s proposals.
“Adding at-risk students to other at-risk schools is not an improvement,” he said, referring to a district proposal to combine Lambs, Hunley Park and Goodwin elementary schools on one campus.
Collins, along with Board Member Kevin Hollinshead, voiced their disapproval on many of the changes brought before the board.
"They still wanted to rush through on certain votes, no matter what the public outcry was," Hollinshead said.
Parents and community members weren't the only ones that hoped the board would wait before taking action.
Last week, 21 lawmakers in the Charleston County legislative delegation signed a letter asking Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and Board Chair Eric 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.
The board was supposed to meet with members of the delegation last week. That meeting is now scheduled for Dec. 13.
The board members could vote for final approval on most of the changes presented Monday during the next board meeting on Nov. 18.
A detailed report of the changes that board members voted on Monday can be found at online at https://go.boarddocs.com/sc/charleston/Board.nsf/vpublic?open.