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Schools: As charter school plans, district tries to lift 1990s court order
By Charles Swenson
While the Georgetown County School District waits for the U.S. Justice Department to decide what it will do if the district asks the federal courts to lift a 1997 desegregation order, it has commissioned a $34,000 study of school attendance zones to see if they are both fair and economical.
The Justice Department is also reviewing the plans for the Coastal Montessori Charter School, which plans to open in August 2012 for students in first through sixth grades. Charter schools get public funding, but have independent governing boards. The county Board of Education approved the Coastal Montessori charter in July on the condition that it receives Justice Department approval.
“I don’t think they would say no,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said.
The charter school plans to open in Pawleys Island with 120 students. State law requires that its enrollment mirror the racial makeup of the district as a whole within a few percentage points or show that it is making a good-faith effort to reach that goal.
The charter school board has looked at portable classrooms at Waccamaw Elementary and vacant classrooms at Waccamaw Middle as a home for its first year, said Kristin Bohan, who chairs the charter board. “Either would suit us,” she said.
The school’s facilities committee is also looking at options for a permanent facility in the Pawleys Island area, which it hopes to have by its second year.
If there is concern from the Justice Department, it will be over accessibility, Dozier said.
“I don’t think this one would have a problem if it were centrally located,” he said.
The district had a charter school in the 1990s. It was located on Fraser Street in Georgetown.
Coastal Montessori began as an effort by parents with children in the private Pawleys Island Montessori to expand the form of education to a wider audience. Montessori schools emphasize self-directed learning in multi-age classrooms.
Coastal Montessori is forming a partnership with East Cooper Montessori, a charter school in Mount Pleasant. East Cooper began with 44 students in a portable classroom and now has 250, Bohan said.
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Organizers believe a school at Pawleys Island has the same potential.
The charter school applied for a $423,000 “planning and implementation” grant last week, money that is passed through to the state from the federal government. If approved, it would get the money over three years.
“We’re not waiting for the money,” Bohan said. “We’re plowing ahead.”
A meeting is scheduled for October with potential applicants for teaching positions.
Facilities and staff will become moot issues if the Justice Department doesn’t approve the school, Dozier said.
The 1997 consent decree with the federal courts came as the district was building new schools, including Carvers Bay High, which combined the historically-black Choppee High with Pleasant Hill High. Among other things, the decree gives the Justice Department the right to review new schools, requires the district to limit the transfer of students within the county and requires the racial mix of teachers at each school to reflect that of the county (50 percent white, 45 percent African-American).
Complying with the decree makes it hard to allocate staff and has led to an expensive transportation program within the district for “majority to minority” student transfers, Dozier says.
The district considered consolidating some small rural elementary schools during budget talks this year, which would also have required Justice Department approval. Dozier said it would also make sense to shift sixth grades from middle to elementary schools, as Waccamaw Middle did when Waccamaw Intermediate opened.
The $34,000 study that the school board approved this week will be the second done for the district by Wilbur Smith and Associates. It will look at existing attendance, project growth and suggest changes “which benefit the students and utilize capacity appropriately, equitably and efficiently, while being consistent with the directives of the Justice decree,” according to the proposal.
It is expected to take five months to complete.
Wilbur Smith did a similar study for the district in 2009. That was part of an effort by the district to lift the consent decree that began in 2005.
After a review that included a visit of Justice Department staff to the district, the department asked for more information about elementary school attendance zones, looking for ways to reduce segregation.
The district tried to show that the racial imbalance in schools was the result of “geographic and demographic limitations,” according to one of the district’s attorneys.
“We advised DOJ of the study, including the determination that [the] probability of achieving further racial balance was extremely low,” the attorney, Meredith Seibert, wrote in July to the new Justice Department attorney reviewing the school district’s status.
After the district submitted the results of the Wilbur Smith study in March 2010, the attorney it had been dealing with left the department and the district heard nothing more about the matter, according to Seibert.
Dozier hopes the new study will lead to a lifting of the consent decree, which has its origins in a desegregation order that dates to the 1970s. “Although it’s not cheap, I think it will be comprehensive,” he said. And when the district starts work on the 2012-13 budget, “I think it is essential.”
As for the budget, Dozier said he hasn’t figured out yet how to pay for the study. The board agreed to it before adopting the current budget, but didn't know the cost.