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Education: Justice Department asks district to weigh impacts of charter school

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The U.S. Justice Department has the same question about the Coastal Montessori Charter School as some county school board members: where will it be located?

The charter school for grades one through six plans to open in August in a vacant wing of Waccamaw Middle School. The school was approved by the state Department of Education and the Georgetown County School Board last year.

The Justice Department review is required to make sure the district complies with the terms of court-ordered desegregation. At the same time, the district has applied to have the order lifted, saying it has done all it can to ensure the balance of race and opportunity in its schools.

But until that happens, the Justice Department wants the district to show how the charter school will impact the racial balance in its schools. The district is scheduled to reply to a list of questions from a Justice Department attorney next week.

The department “needs additional information about the charter school’s placement, both the temporary and the permanent one,” Tom Falklinburg, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division, wrote the district last month.

The middle school is only intended to serve as the school’s home for the first year. The charter school board hopes to build its own facility in the Pawleys Island area. Out of 146 students, 124 live on the Waccamaw Neck. The school hasn’t determined the racial mix of the students.

Some school board members suggested the school look at Georgetown, but the organizers of Coastal Montessori live on Waccamaw Neck and many have connections with the private Pawleys Island Montessori School.

Falkinburg noted “the racial composition of this particular school diverges fairly significantly from the district-wide composition because Waccamaw Middle School is 24 percent more white than the district-wide percentage, and the school’s black student population is about 27 percent lower than the district-wide average.”

He asked the district to outline what steps it will take to avoid a “racial imbalance” while the charter school is housed at the middle school.

The district and the charter school project manager, Kristin Bohan, are working on a response, Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

The Justice Department also wants to know how the charter school will function within the middle school, which has had a vacant wing since the sixth grade moved to Waccamaw Intermediate three years ago. It asks about transportation for students and meals for low-income students. And it wants the district to explain the financial impact of the charter school.

Charter schools receive public money, but are free from some requirements other public schools must meet and have an independent governing board.

The questions about Coastal Montessori are the same ones the district expects to answer in order to lift the desegregation order, Dozier said.

“The problem with the charter school that they’re having is the same problem the district is having” with the Justice Department, he said. “I can’t move communities.”

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